Russia’s Cuban warship stunt shows Putin running out of options

Russian President Vladimir Putin touted the benefits of investing in his sanction-hit nation on Friday, as experts said his decision to deploy warships to Cuba shows how Russia‘s “hands are tied” as its economy is depleted by the war in Ukraine.

Speaking at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in Russia, Mr Putin told leaders of Bolivia and Zimbabwe that Russia “remains one of the key participants in world trade” as he tried to pit investors against “unfriendly nations” elsewhere.

“Countries that until recently were the leaders of global development are trying to maintain their fleeting hegemony using all means, good and bad,” he said.

The investment drive comes amid the latest round of nuclear sabre-rattling that will see a Russian nuclear-powered submarine and three naval ships arrive in Havana next week – just 90 miles (144km) from the US border.

Cuba’s government said on Thursday the vessels will dock from 12 to 17 June, but stressed that none of them will carry any nuclear weapons, and assured that their presence “does not represent a threat to the region”.

The Russian “frigate Gorshkov, the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan, the fleet oil tanker Pashin, and the rescue tug Nikolai Chiker” will visit the country, the Cuban revolutionary armed forces said in a statement published by the foreign ministry.

Russian media noted that the Admiral Gorshkov is carrying Zircon hypersonic missiles, which the Kremlin has claimed are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, while the Russian ministry of defence stated their objective is to ensure a naval presence in “operationally important areas of the far ocean zone”.

In this photo taken from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Thursday, May 23, 2024, Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov conducts an air defense exercise in the Atlantic Ocean. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov conducts an air defense exercise in the Atlantic Ocean on 23 May. (Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Justin Crump, a former British Army officer who runs risk intelligence company Sibylline, told i: “This is notable but will not be a major concern to the US.”

“The Russians have deployed one frigate [and] the Kazan – an attack missile submarine which already operates in the Atlantic. The other two are vessels to support and make sure the Kazan doesn’t break down – which isn’t all that threatening.

“Russia visiting allies in the Caribbean will irritate the West but Cuba has gone to lengths to show it won’t be carrying nuclear weapons into America’s backyard. Russia, for propaganda purposes, want to make a lot of this, they are often saying they will supply weapons to the enemies of our enemies – but this is a minor deployment.”

The trip comes amid heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington after Russia alleged on Friday that Ukraine had used US-supplied rockets to kill a women and children in a region of southern Russia and said that Washington was to blame.

Last week, the US gave Ukraine the green light to use American-made ATACM missiles as a “counter-measure” to hit inside Russian territory, prompting security chief Dmitry Medvedev to say Russia was not bluffing about using tactical nuclear weapons and that “no one can rule out it escalating to the last stage”.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has claimed Russia’s latest mission to the Caribbean is trying to “invoke the historical memory of the Cuban missile crisis” – a confrontation that is widely considered the closest the world has come to all-out nuclear war.

Defence analyst and historian Peter Caddick-Adams told i: “The Russians hope this will nudge the Biden administration into a panic but it’s not an escalation.

“Putin is being manipulative and sending the same message which he has said continuously since the start of Ukraine war; that it will retaliate if the US ramps up its support for Ukraine – but he says this often, without any real hint of it in practice.

“So, it’s far from a repeat of the Cuban missile crisis, the Russians announced this in advance, they haven’t tried to sneak in war ships. They are no longer a world power like the Soviet Union and they are not the big beast they used to be.”

Russia’s military is expected to increase its naval and air activity near the United States this summer as part of their “historical practice” to maintain relations with Cuba, according to the US State Department and the Pentagon.

During the fleet’s arrival at the port of Havana, 21 salvos will be fired from one of the ships as a salute to the nation, which will be met by an artillery battery of Cuba’s military, the foreign ministry said.

Last July, the Russian navy’s training class ship Perekop sailed into Havana for a four-day visit, while Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel met with Mr Putin in May after he reaffirmed his support for the country and blamed the US for limiting “Cuba’s development and “harm[ing] it economically through sanctions and restrictions”.

It comes after Ukraine’s diplomatic envoy for Latin America and the Caribbean, Ruslan Spirin, estimated that 400 Cubans have joined Russia’s ranks in its war, offering highly-lucrative monthly payments in the region of $2,000 (£1,600) per month.

Mr Caddick-Adams said: “Cuba is one of the few pro-active friends Russia has got left. Russian tourism is big in Cuba as both countries are sanctioned and Cuba relies on Russian oil and military protection, while Russia in turn gets the access to an important geostrategic location.

“But the Russians’ hands are tied with their depleted weapons stock from their war in Ukraine and it’s hard to know how many of their nuclear weapons actually work. There’s no hint Russia is particularly capable – or is ramping up to that [nuclear war] – the West have satellites watching this and nothing has twitched at all beyond Putin’s empty threats.”