Why Putin Sent Russian Ships to Cuba

On June 17, Russian naval vessels left Cuba without incident, concluding a five-day visit. The visit may have been without incident, but it wasn’t without meaning. Frustrated that their diplomatic messages were not being heard, Russia sent a louder message. But that message may not have simply been about projecting power as the West has presented it.

On June 12, four Russian naval vessels docked at Havana Bay in Cuba, just 90 miles from the coast of Florida. The vessels included the Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the Kazan submarine. Though they can both carry advanced weapons, neither were carrying nuclear weapons.

The two vessels make a strong statement. The Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov, “one of the Russian Navy’s most modern ships,” is capable of being armed with Zircon hypersonic missiles. The Kazan submarine is a nuclear-powered submarine that is one of the Yasen-class submarines “that has worried the US and Western militaries for years due to its stealth and strike capabilities.” It is quiet and tough to track and can carry cruise missiles.

Though the Pentagon has said that the Russian fleet does not pose a threat to the United States, the U.S. has deployed ships, reconnaissance planes and sea drones to monitor and track the vessels. The U.S. also sent a fast-attack submarine to Guantanamo Bay and their Canadian ally sent a navy patrol ship into Havana.

Though saying they do not pose an actual threat, the mainstream media has portrayed the arrival of the ships as a Russian demonstration of its ability to project power into America’s hemisphere and backyard.

It is not possible to divine Russia’s intention. The official Russian statement is that “Naval exercises are standard practice in very varied parts of the world, and are standard practice for states – in particular those that are major naval powers like the Russian Federation. The carrying out of such visits is also a widespread practice.”

But, though it is impossible to read Russia’s intention in sending the ships, it is not difficult to see the effect. There are two significant messages to be read in the arrival of the Russian fleet.

Whatever Russia’s intent was, the arrival of the fleet had the effect of turning the Ukraine table and asking the U.S. to consider, for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, what concerns they might have, and how they might react, to having a rival superpower at your door and the potential for advanced weapons on your borders. The answer was clear. Though U.S. intelligence has determined that none of the vessels are carrying nuclear weapons, the Pentagon has assessed that they don’t pose a threat, and the State Department has said that such visits are routine, that did not assuage the need for them to rush a fast-attack submarine and surround the fleet from above, around and below.

Whether or not it was Russia’s intent, the U.S. may have been reminded about incursions into backyards and spheres of influence. The felt reminder was noted by Russia. Noting Washington’s nervous response, a reporter asked Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova what signal Russia was sending. She answered that the West was always “completely deaf” to diplomatic signals, but that “[a]s soon as it comes to exercises or sea voyages, we immediately hear questions and a desire to know what these messages are about. Why do only signals related only to our army and navy reach the West?”

The second thing that is clear from the arrival of the Russian vessels in Cuba is that, as Alexander Hill, professor of military history at the University of Calgary, put it to me, “Russia has been rebuilding relationships established by the Soviet Union over the last decade or so – including with the likes of Cuba and many African states – and naval visits have been part of that process.”

Despairing that the door to a comprehensive European security arrangement has been permanently shut and facing Western attempts to isolate it, Russia has turned, instead, to old relationships. Putin is not trying to rebuild the Soviet empire, but he may be trying to rebuild Soviet relationships. The recent signing of a comprehensive strategic partnership with North Korea is the most current example. While signing the agreement, Putin recalled a long Russian-North Korean relationship going back over three quarters of a century. The visit to Cuba fits into that pattern. Hill also includes Russia’s reliable relationship with Syria.

Another example is Africa. Putin has said that “Russia’s multifaceted cooperation” and “partnership” with African countries “is reaching a whole new level” and has promised that Russia “has always and will always consider cooperation with African states a priority.” He frequently points out that “Ever since the African peoples’ heroic struggle for independence, it has been common knowledge that the Soviet Union provided significant support to the peoples of Africa in their fight against colonialism, racism and apartheid.”

In the 1960’s, the Soviet Union kept Cuba afloat while under attack by the U.S. embargo. William LeoGrande, Professor of Government at American University and a specialist in U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America, says, “Although that partnership collapsed with the end of the Cold War, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to rebuild it.”

Putin, LeoGrande says, forgave 90% of Cuba’s debt to the Soviet Union, has provided increasing economic aid, and, in 2009, signed a strategic partnership with Cuba that included economic, political and diplomatic relations. Russian aid has saved Cuban lives during COVID, according to LeoGrande.

As well as reminding the U.S. of concerns they would have with a rival superpower on their doorstep who could transfer weapons with a flight time of minutes to your territory, the visiting Russian vessels should be seen in the context of the reestablishment of Russia’s old relationship with Cuba.

Whatever signal Russia was sending, it was heard louder in Washington than diplomatic signals Russia has sent. The advanced vessels in Cuba’s harbors may have reminded the U.S. what it feels like to have a rival superpower with advanced weapons on your borders. It is also a reminder that Russia, instead of being isolated, is reestablishing old Soviet-era relationships.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.