By Bill Gertz, The Washington Times
The Russian military recently dispatched a guided-missile warship to Cuba as part of what U.S. officials say are growing military, intelligence and economic ties between Moscow and Havana. The missile cruiser is the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, according to state-run Russian news reports. “The cruiser Moskva and the large seagoing tanker Ivan Bubnov set off for Havana on the fourth week of their long-distance deployment,” a fleet spokesman told Interfax-AVN on Friday. On the way, the ship conducted a test launch of a cruise missile, he said.
After Havana, the warship will visit Caracas, Venezuela; Managua, Nicaragua; and Praia Port in the Cape Verde Islands off eastern Africa. The visit to Cuba is part of what the U.S. officials said is a push by Moscow to boost relations with Cuba in the military, energy and transportation sectors.
The effort was kicked off in February when Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev announced that Moscow is canceling most of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt, estimated at close to $30 billion, while he denounced the U.S. embargo against the communist island nation.
The closer ties also appear related to Russian efforts to maintain influence in the region after the death of leftist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and the expected retirement of Cuban President Raul Castro in the coming months.
Russian military ties with Cuba were bolstered during a visit to Havana in April by Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Valeri Gerasimov. US officials said Gen. Gerasimov’s visit included stops at Cuban military and intelligence sites and was viewed as an indication that Moscow wants to step up both its military and intelligence presence in Cuba. During the Soviet period, the Russians operated a large electronic spying facility at Lourdes, near Havana, that was capable of intercepting most U.S. communications in the southeastern United States. It was less than 100 miles off the coast of Key West.
Now there are signs that the Russians want to return to Lourdes for more electronic spying. The Russians also are assisting the Cubans economically with offshore oil prospecting, plans for a new international airport near Havana and deliveries of Russian passenger jets. The warship visit follows Panama’s recent seizure of a North Korean freighter covertly ferrying Soviet-made missiles and aircraft from Cuba to North Korea, in apparent violation of U.N. sanctions on Pyongyang over its missile and nuclear tests.