On Saturday, August 3rd, the “Moskva,” a guide-missile cruiser that forms part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, along with additional supporting vessels, docked in Havana, Cuba. The arrival of the Russian Warships has been labeled as a “friendly visit” by the Russian Navy to Moscow’s once-close ally in the Western Hemisphere.
But as symbolically important this event may be (as it conjures memories of the close military ties between Havana and Moscow during the Cold War), it is doubtful that such a move is part of a greater push by the Russian government to increase once again its presence in the Western Hemisphere.
Moreover, the recent visit of the warships did not occur with the same fanfare to aNovember 2008 visit of Russian warshipsto the Caribbean. During that deployment, the Russian ships carried out military exercises with the Venezuelan Navy, and then visited other Moscow-friendly Latin American nations, including Cuba.
The maritime exercises involving the Russian and Venezuelan fleets coincided with a visit bythen-Russian President Dmitry Medvedevto Caracas, where he met with the late-President Hugo Chavez.
Presence of Russian warships
The 2008 deployment of Russian ships to the Caribbean was the first time Russian warships had flown the Russian flag in the region since the end of the Cold War.
Therefore, the presence of Russian warships in the Caribbean Sea provoked great media attention and speculation, particularly regarding the future of Russian-Venezuelan relations (throughout his presidency, Chavez spent billions of petro-dollars onRussian military equipment), and whether some kind of security-related rapprochement could occur.
However, with Chavez’s passing and Vladimir Putin returning to the Russian presidency, initiatives between Caracas and Moscow have arguably begun to cool down (apart from the aforementioned arms sales).
As for Moscow-Havana relations today, they are barely a shadow of the close relations between the two governments during the Cold War, which included massive financial assistance from the then-Soviet government to the Fidel Castro regime. Within the past decade, Russia has carried out initiatives to renew and increase its influence in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly in nations such as Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
However, when Russian Prime Minister Medvedev carried out a brief tour of Latin Americathis past February2013 in which he visited Brazil and Cuba, he skipped Venezuela.
This was likely due to the fact that Chavez had still been alive and in extremely dire health at the time, and there was widespread speculation regarding factions within the upper echelons of Venezuelan leadership who wanted to succeed the dying leader.
Hence, if Medvedev had visited Caracas, he might have been pressured into taking sides in internal Venezuela politics, a situation Moscow certainly wanted to avoid.
Moreover, the August 2013 port call made by the Russian warships came at an interesting time for Cuba, as President Raul Castro has stated that he will step down from power in 2017, marking the end of a long era of Castro family leadership.
The Cuban government is also undergoing negotiations to improve relations with the U.S. (Washington has historically decided to extend non-immigrant visas for Cubans from six months to five years).
Meanwhile, the Russian military is feeling strengthened and empowered after it carried out major military exercises this past mid-July, the biggest since the fall of the Soviet Union.According to reports, up to 160,000 troops and about 5,000 tanks were utilized in military maneuvers in Russia’s Siberian and far eastern regions.
Is Moscow returning to Latin America?
Given the recent geopolitical development among these two post-Cold War allies, it is uncertain how the deployment of the Russian warships toCubashould be interpreted. The timing suggests that the Russian government wants to continue showing the rest of the world its renewed military might, particularly after the recent military exercises in Siberia.
Hence, a visit of one of the Russian Navy’s top vessels to a friendly government in the Western hemisphere is a logical next step.
Even so, while the deployment of the warships and Medvedev’s February visit are symbolically significant, there is little evidence to suggest that Moscow has either interests to militarily-strengthen relations with the Cuban government, or, more broadly speaking, if it has a doctrine or long-term vision regarding the most appropriate methods to approach Latin America and the Caribbean.
Nevertheless, the deployment of a Russian warships like the “Moskva” to Caribbean waters, so geographically close to the U.S., is certainly an interesting development that, at the very least, demonstrates that the Russian military can still preserve its presence in its traditional area of influence in Eurasia, while also further extending its reach to the nations of the Western Hemisphere.