Russia’s Naval Drills in the Caribbean Are a Nuisance, not a Threat

Russia’s Naval Drills in the Caribbean Are a Nuisance, not a Threat
A Cuban sailor walks past the Russian navy training ship, Perekop, in Havana Bay, Cuba, July 11, 2023 (AP photo by Ramon Espinosa).

Three Russian naval vessels and a nuclear-powered submarine are expected to arrive in Havana this week to conduct joint sea and air exercises with Cuba and Venezuela.* The last time Russia took part in such exercises in the Caribbean, in 2019, its navy had more ships and a better reputation. It had yet to face global sanctions and airspace restrictions due to its invasion of Ukraine. It had also not yet lost a third of its Black Sea fleet to Kyiv’s imaginative and capable asymmetric attacks, which have allowed Ukraine to disable and sink numerous Russian vessels despite possessing limited naval capabilities.

Prior to the war in Ukraine, the current visit would have gotten a small amount of media attention, some of it hyperbolic, but would still have been largely seen as no big deal. Russia made visits to the Caribbean an almost annual ritual in the 2010s, with at least six similar exercises and several smaller trips throughout that decade. In 2015, 2017 and 2019, the Viktor Leonov spy ship, capable of intercepting radio communications, lingered in international waters off the U.S. coast and also visited Cuba. In 2019, the U.S. military warned the ship that it was operating in an unsafe manner that could affect nearby vessels. Several times, including in 2019, the Admiral Gorshkov visited Cuba and other ports of call in the Caribbean.

On several occasions, these naval exercises were combined with visits from Russia’s Tu-160 strategic bombers, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, though Russia stresses that they do not do so during these exercises. While these military flights have not yet been announced for this year, they are likely to occur.

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