Russian navy to visit Cuba as cold war allies draw closer

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A Russian naval flotilla is due to dock in Cuba on Wednesday, the first such visit since the outbreak of war in Ukraine and a signal that Moscow’s full-scale invasion is binding Havana closer to its longtime ally.

A nuclear-powered Russian submarine and three warships are expected to fire a 21-gun salute across Havana Bay, to be greeted by the island’s Communist authorities. They are expected to dock in the same place where US cruise ships used to anchor until they were banned by the Trump administration five years ago.

Russia’s port call comes amid escalating tensions with the US over the war in Ukraine. Last week, President Joe Biden authorised the Ukrainian military to strike targets in Russia with US weaponry. President Vladimir Putin responded by saying Moscow might arm more countries hostile to the west.

“It’s the tit for tat that Russian-American relations on Cuba have always involved,” said Hal Klepak, professor emeritus of history and strategy at the Royal Military College of Canada. He said the message Moscow hopes to send to Washington is: “Yes, you can do a lot more to us from Ukraine, but we are also not completely helpless and can be a nuisance for you.”

Cuba has long been Moscow’s closest ally in the Americas, while Russia is one of a handful of countries Havana counts as “strategic partners”. Cuba’s relationships with other allies such as China and Venezuela have waned, but its ties with Russia are stronger than at any point since the cold war, analysts say.

Eager to boost diplomatic support for its war in Ukraine, Russia sees Cuba as worth courting because of its enduring clout among developing nations. In Havana, meanwhile, the ruling Communist party is looking for any economic assistance it can get: output has slumped in the centrally planned economy; tourism has not fully rebounded since the coronavirus pandemic; and millions now contend with 12-hour daily blackouts. 

In 2022, Russia sent its highest volumes of oil to Cuba since the end of the cold war. Last year, it agreed to supply Havana with an annual 1.64mn tonnes of oil and derivatives, a similar amount to the previous year, although deliveries have fallen short. In March, a Russian tanker docked with 90,000 tonnes of oil following protests against food and power shortages in Santiago, Cuba’s second city.

With Cuba now able to process Russians’ credit and debit payments, the country’s tourists are flocking to the island. Some 66,000 arrived in the first quarter of this year, twice the number in the same period a year earlier, according to official figures. Russian private investments in hotels, sugar and rum have also been announced.

Cuba has consistently abstained on UN resolutions on the invasion of Ukraine, but the island’s rhetoric has recently morphed from one that could be construed as neutral to one that is unabashedly pro-Russian.

On a visit to Moscow last month, Cuban President Miguel Diáz-Canel wished Putin “every success with the special military operation”. Last year the Cuban leader said the sanctions on both countries “have the origin in the same enemy — the Yankee empire”.

Cuban PresidentMiguel Diáz-Canel and Vladimir Putin
Cuban President Miguel Diáz-Canel left, with Vladimir Putin. Cuba has moved to unabashedly pro-Russian rhetoric © Getty Images

Former US president Donald Trump reversed the normalisation of US-Cuban relations undertaken by his predecessor Barack Obama, and Biden has maintained an economic embargo and a policy of limited engagement. That stance has left space for US adversaries to fill.

“We’ve seen this film before,” said Rafael Hernandez, editor of a state-backed social science magazine and someone who was teaching peasants to read in 1961, the year Cuba moved decisively into the Soviet camp. “The US is once again strengthening and accelerating our relationship with Russia.”

The deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba triggered the 1962 missile crisis, the closest the world has come to nuclear war. Havana’s foreign ministry stated that the Russian warships arriving on Wednesday carry no nuclear weapons and represent no threat to the region.

Biden administration officials said they expect Russian military exercises in the Caribbean over the coming days, adding that the fleet’s presence was not a concern.

“We’re back to pre-1990,” said Bill LeoGrande, professor of government at American University. “As we enter into Cold War 2.0, Cuba is once again seen as in the adversarial camp.”

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