— Viktor Leonov moors up in Old Havana pier during key diplomatic talks
— U.S. officials play down arrival saying it was ‘not unusual, not alarming’
In a throwback to the Cold War, a Russian spy ship caused a stir after unexpectedly docking in Havana on the eve of historic talks between the U.S. and Cuba. There was nothing stealthy about the arrival of the Viktor Leonov CCB-175, which was moored to a pier in Old Havana where cruise ships often dock. But the visit was not officially announced by Cuban authorities.
The timing also raised eyebrows as it came on Tuesday, the eve of historic U.S-Cuba talks aimed at normalising diplomatic relations. U.S. officials in Washington played down the presence of the Russian vessel, saying it was perfectly legal and not at all out of the ordinary. ‘It’s not unprecedented. It’s not unusual. It’s not alarming,’ a defense official told AFP news agency.
The Vishnya or Meridian-class intelligence ship, which has a crew of around 200, went into service in the Black Sea in 1988 before it was transferred seven years later to the northern fleet, according to Russian media. The vessel previously docked in Havana in February and March last year, staying there for a few days. Those visits were also unannounced.
The Russians said the visit was scheduled a long time ago and was yesterday opened up for the children of Russian diplomats. For Cubans, who became increasingly dependent on Russia after the 1959 revolution, the ship’s latest visit has taken them down memory lane. Raphael Hernandez told ABC News: ‘We have normal relations with Russia.
‘One day, when we have normal relations with U.S., we could have an American ship visiting.’
The highest-level U.S. delegation in 35 years will conclude two-day talks in Havana today with both sides cautioning an immediate breakthrough was unlikely. Senior U.S. officials say they hope Cuba will agree to reopen embassies and appoint ambassadors in each other’s capitals in coming months. The United States also wants travel curbs on its diplomats lifted and unimpeded shipments to its mission in Havana.
During talks on Wednesday, the Americans vowed to continue granting safe haven to Cubans with special protections denied to other nationalities. Cuba complained the U.S. law promotes dangerous illegal immigration and protested against a separate U.S. program that encourages Cuban doctors to defect, calling it a ‘reprehensible brain drain practice.’
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