With its anti-aircraft guns, the Russian Navy training ship Perekop docked in Cuba on July 11, raising concerns in the region. The ship arrived with more than 200 cadets on board at the port of Havana, where it stayed for three days. “This is the first official visit by a Russian warship to Cuba in years and another sign of the renewed relationship between the two Cold War-era allies,” CNN en Español reported.
In the past few months alone, several top Russian officials visited Havana. Among those were Secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Igor Sechin, executive director of the Rosneft oil company, AFP reported.
According to experts, the renewed Russian-Cuban ties could mean new threats for Latin America. “The main threat I see for the countries of the region is the expansion and strengthening of extreme dictatorial regimes in countries where dictatorships [Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua] or potential dictatorships exist,” Latin America expert Luis Fleischman, a sociology and political sciences professor at Palm Beach State University in Florida, told Diálogo.
Russian ship Perekop also made stops in Nicaragua and Venezuela. “I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility that Russia is involved in a disinformation campaign aimed at strengthening subversive extremist political groups or parties in the region,” Fleischman said.
In addition to receiving Russian naval vessels, Cuba also allowed the Kremlin to use much of the Cuban territory. In an agreement announced in May, Cuba offered Russian companies the right to make use of Cuban land for 30 years, “an unusual concession to foreign companies in the communist country,” Reuters reported.
According to Fleischman, the possibility of using such land for military purposes should not be ruled out. “Russia could place missiles on Cuban soil or in any other allied country in the region,” he said.
Journalist Manolo González Moscote, former CNN correspondent in Moscow made a similar warning. “Apparently, the biggest thing [the Russians] may be doing is studying the possibility of two things: a very important telecommunications center, like the ones they have in Nicaragua, and bringing back new-generation nuclear weapons,” González Moscote told news channel America TeVé Miami.
“That moving about of ships, of giving Russia ports as free-use… all of that has a basis. It’s simply a cover, just like in Tartus,” González Moscote said, referring to the military base that Russia maintains in Syria under the façade of a maintenance center. “Here they want to use Cuba as a weapons center.”
War in Ukraine
Cuba and Russia have also reportedly signed an agreement to send Cuban soldiers to the war in Ukraine, Argentine news site Infobae reported in mid-June. According to Madrid-based human rights nongovernmental organization Prisoners Defenders, Cuban soldiers are receiving training in Belarus, an ally of Moscow.
“The Cuban Army is one of the few in the world that does not need to receive training from [Belarusian President] Alexander Lukashenko’s troops, unless the training is intended to engage in combat using modern weaponry supplied by Russia,” Prisoners Defenders said in a mid-May report.
“One only has to have Cuba’s law at hand to know that no Cuban servicemen can leave the island and enter such a conflict without having been sent by their government with the ‘official’ passport,” Prisoners Defenders added. “In other words, they are soldiers ‘rented’ to Russia by the Cuban government, otherwise they cannot by law leave the island.”
Media in the Russian region of Kazan reported that Cuban migrants have already begun to enlist in the ranks of the Russian Army, Infobae reported. “According to local press reports, the aspirants seek to benefit from legislation enacted by the Kremlin that allows foreigners serving in the military the possibility of applying for Russian citizenship through the fast track,” Infobae reported.
But there is another reason for the agreement between Moscow and Havana, according to Fleischman: the failed mutiny of the Wagner Group against the Russian government. A former Kremlin ally, the paramilitary group has become “a problem for Russia on the home front and on the battle front,” said Fleischman. By recruiting Cuban soldiers, Russia seeks to reduce its dependence on these mercenaries and bring new life to its exhausted troops in Ukraine.
“The Wagner Group has already provided security services and paramilitary assistance and launched disinformation campaigns for regimes and political groups in Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mali, Libya, Syria, and Venezuela,” Fleischman said. In turn, Cuba historically responded to Russia’s wishes to send troops to places like Angola, Ethiopia, Congo, Algeria, Iraq, and Syria, the expert added.
“Today Cuba’s interest is solely to help protect the regime, not economic benefit for the people. Cuba has been fascinated by Russia’s coercive power as popular discontent with the government increases, as demonstrated in the mass protests of July 2021,” Fleischman concluded.