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Why are Russian warships in Cuba?

Russian warships sailed into Cuba’s main harbour in what appears to be a show of strength by Moscow amid heightened tensions with  USA.

On Wednesday, dozens of Havana residents gathered and watched as Russian warships sailed into Cuba’s main harbour – in the latest display of naval strength by Moscow amid heightened tensions with the United States.

The Caribbean nation is a neighbour of the US, which at its closest point, is just about 150 kilometres (94 miles) away, but have had tense relations for decades.

While it is not the first time Russian navy ships have visited Cuba, this convoy appears to be the largest in several years. The fleet is expected to stay between June 12 and 17 and the public will be allowed to take tours of the vessels.

Here’s what we know about why Russia has sent ships to Cuba now, how far back Russian-Cuban ties go, and why the two have gotten closer in the past year

The flotilla is part of a “friendly” routine visit between the two countries’ navies, Cuban officials have said. The crew on board are expected to conduct military training exercises during their time in the Caribbean.

But analysts have said Moscow’s move is largely calculated to flex naval muscle in the US’s back yard. The detachment comes after escalating tensions between Russia and the US, following President Joe Biden’s decision in May to allow Ukraine to attack Russian targets with American weapons.

Russian President Putin has promised retaliation against not only the US, but also other Western allies of Ukraine who also removed restrictions on using their weapons against Moscow.

“That would mark their direct involvement in the war against the Russian Federation, and we reserve the right to act the same way,” Putin said last week, adding that Moscow was ready to use nuclear weapons.

Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America programme at the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center think tank, told The Associated Press news agency that “the warships are a reminder to Washington that it is unpleasant when an adversary meddles in your [neighbourhood].”

The naval show-off is also meant to reassure Moscow’s Latin American allies – Cuba and Venezuela, of its continued support for them against Washington, some experts said.

US officials are publicly downplaying the deployment, and say it is part of usual port-calls between Russia and Cuba.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Wednesday that such naval exercises were routine and that there were no signs Moscow was transferring missiles to Havana.

Last July, Perekop – a Russian training ship equipped with anti-aircraft guns and a rocket launcher – was on a four-day visit to Havana and conducted “a range of activities” according to Cuban officials. The Admiral itself visited in 2019.

“We have seen this kind of thing before, and we expect to see this kind of thing again, and I’m not going to read into it any particular motives,” Sullivan said, adding that the US would remain vigilant.

The US deployed ships and planes that monitored the movement of the fleet even before it arrived in Cuba and assessed there were no nuclear weapons on board, officials speaking to US media said, noting that the fleet stayed in international waters throughout.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that the fleet had conducted drills in the Atlantic while on the way to Cuba.

The Russian crew practised using high-precision missile weapons with the aid of computer-simulated enemy ship targets located at a distance of more than 600km (more than 320 nautical miles), according to the ministry.

Meanwhile, the Cuban Foreign Ministry, before the fleet’s arrival, stressed that none of the warships would carry nuclear weapons and added that their presence “does not represent a threat to the region”.

“Visits by naval units from other countries are a historical practice of the revolutionary government with nations that maintain relations of friendship and collaboration,” the ministry said in a statement.


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