Latin America Advisor

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Will Geopolitical Tensions Escalate in the Caribbean?

Russia sent four military ships, including the frigate Admiral Gorshkov (pictured) to Cuba last month for exercises.

Russia last month sent four military ships, including a frigate and a nuclear-powered submarine, to Cuba for exercises. The move was seen as a show of force by Moscow amid tensions with the West over its support for Ukraine in its war with Russia. The Russian ships’ arrival was followed by the docking at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station of a U.S. submarine and the arrival in Havana of a Canadian Navy patrol ship. How likely are tensions between Russia and the West to escalate further in the Caribbean? To what extent is Russia seeking to increase its influence in the Western Hemisphere? How important is Cuba to Russia’s political and military objectives?

Barry R. McCaffrey, president of BR McCaffrey Associates, retired four-star U.S. Army general and former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy: “When the Russian navy pulled into Havana for a five-day visit in mid-June, it marked the seventh such deployment since 2008. This small political-military provocation is no threat to the United States. Two Russian combat warships and two support vessels were deployed. The Ukrainians (who possess no major naval warships) have sunk or severely damaged one-third of the Russian Black Sea fleet. These young Russian sailors will be far safer in the Caribbean. Putin has Russia in isolation and economic peril. The Russian armed forces have suffered a quarter million casualties in their criminal invasion of Ukraine. Cuba, North Korea, Iran and low-level Chinese support are Putin’s dwindling international partners. Russia is Cuba’s principal creditor. There is some tourism, but it is limited by aging infrastructure. Cheap oil from Venezuela is disappearing. The 11 million Cuban people live in a repressive and stunningly incompetent one-party communist state. Life is a daily struggle for food, medicine and fuel. Power outages are constant from the fragile electrical grid. Eighty-eight percent live in extreme poverty. Cuba continues to endure a massive brain drain as people flee through Nicaragua to the U.S. border. The shaky Russian navy cannot help the Cuban people. Cuba needs political freedom, economic opportunity, the rule of law and the end of the repressive communist dictatorship. However, the prospects seem bleak.”

Vicki J. Huddleston, retired U.S. ambassador and former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana: “President James Monroe in his 1823 address to Congress articulated the doctrine that became a basic tenant of U.S. policy toward the hemisphere. One partial sentence referring to independent hemispheric governments is relevant to the visit of Russian warships to Cuba: ‘we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.’ The Biden administration has rightly not overreacted; realistically, there is little the United States can do. Nevertheless, the visit by the Russian ships has given its favored American presidential candidate a boost by underlining Biden’s inability to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. More worrisome is what this means for the future. Russia could send nuclear armed submarines to the Caribbean to threaten the United States in the event of an improvement in Ukraine’s military prospects. The visit of these warships should, more than anything else, put the United States on notice that our policy failure toward Cuba has given Russia an important pawn on the geopolitical chess board. The tragedy is that Trump—by undoing the Obama opening and pushing Cuba back into Russia’s orbit—has weakened American security and ultimately our ability to enforce the Monroe Doctrine when we are truly threatened.”

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, chief inclusion officer at Texas Christian University: “I am going to conjecture that Russia is signaling for internal, as well as external audiences, its ability to project military force and power globally. This is further exemplified by Putin’s recent visit to North Korea to ramp up its arms trade in support of the war in Ukraine. Despite the hyperbolic media responses in Florida, the Russian military exercises were essentially ‘computer games,’ but they provided Russia an opportunity to display its most sophisticated naval assets under the nose of the United States. I see it as a one-shot expedition because Russia is significantly constrained by the stalemate in Ukraine and the significant human and financial burden it has placed on its economy. Given that Cuba was the destination at the end of a significant deployment, it conjures the illusion of a renewed Cold War relationship. But, aside from oil imports for Cuba’s decrepit energy infrastructure, Russia is far too focused on Ukraine and the threat posed in Europe by the continuing expansion there of NATO, and it has little more to offer Cuba or the region at this time. Unlike North Korea, Cuba does not produce the war materiel essential to Russia’s immediate geostrategic needs. Moreover, it would be a stretch to consider Cuba sending troops to support the Russian effort given the Cuban domestic economic crisis. The fact that Russia is making conscripts of prisoners is a clear example of the desperate nature of its gambit, but it is still a stretch.”

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