Russian ships visit Cold War ally Cuba
HAVANA - A Russian antisubmarine destroyer and two logistical warships docked in Cuba yesterday, a thumb-yournose port call aimed at Washington in waters just 90 miles from Florida.
The arrival was nonmilitary, an extension of a tour that has included stops in Venezuela and Panama and shows Moscow's desire to flex some muscle in America's backyard after Washington supported the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
It also signals that Cuba is willing to hedge its bets and fall back on Cold War allies, even as President Raul Castro reaches out to the United States, offering to negotiate directly with President-elect Barack Obama and proposing an unprecedented swap of political prisoners held in his country for five Cuban spies behind bars in America.
"That is Cuba's diplomatic specialty, playing both sides, or all sides, on every issue," said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
Russians sailors in white and tan dress uniforms stood at attention on the deck of the Admiral Chabanenko destroyer, which sailed into Havana Bay amid a cloud of gray smoke.
The ships will be moored here until Tuesday and the crew planned a tour of Havana that includes a trip to a naval school.
A ceremonial Cuban cannon fired a gun salute, and a naval band waiting on a cruise ship dock played the Russian and Cuban national anthems.
It marked the first time Russian military ships have visited Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.