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Russian Flotilla off Florida Coast Sparks Concern

Last week, a contingent of Russian Navy ships, including a nuclear-powered submarine, made a conspicuous arrival in Cuba. Described by Cuban officials as part of a “friendly” visit, the crew is expected to undertake military training exercises in the Caribbean. This move aligns with Russia’s historical alliances with Venezuela and Cuba, and its periodic forays into the region.

However, Western officials are far from convinced by this narrative, interpreting Russia’s actions as a deliberate provocation. In response, the Pentagon mobilized three Navy destroyers and maritime patrol aircraft to monitor the Russian flotilla, which reportedly conducted missile exercises within 30 miles of the Florida coast. Although the Pentagon asserts that Russian activities are not viewed as a threat, the proximity of these exercises to U.S. territorial waters is alarming.

“We’re always, constantly going to monitor any foreign vessels operating near U.S. territorial waters,” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh stated on June 12 during a Pentagon press briefing. “We, of course, take it seriously, but these exercises don’t pose a threat to the United States.”

Retired Lt. Gen. Richard Newton, speaking on NewsNation’s “Elizabeth Vargas Reports,” described the deployment as “at best, provocative.” He emphasized that the presence of the Russian fleet near Havana, including a submarine equipped with hypersonic missiles, signals that President Vladimir Putin is willing to assert his influence close to the United States, even as the U.S. supports Ukraine.

“Putin is telling President [Joe] Biden and the rest of the free world, frankly, that he can operate in the backyard of the United States,” Newton said.

While Pentagon officials seem outwardly unperturbed, it’s likely they are attempting to mitigate public concern. Newton suggests that the situation escalates tensions between the U.S. and Russia, especially in light of President Biden’s recent approval for Ukraine to conduct strikes within Russian territory.

This maneuver by Russia comes shortly after Biden authorized Ukraine to use U.S.-supplied weapons for strikes inside Russia, aiming to protect Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Newton notes that Russia’s activities near allies Cuba and Venezuela are reminiscent of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union sought to project power and influence in Latin America, most notably during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. “The tensions are rising, especially with President Biden’s recent announcement,” Newton said.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was a harrowing 13-day standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, nearly plunging the world into nuclear war. Ultimately, both countries agreed to remove their respective missiles from Cuba and Turkey, defusing the crisis.

Today, the presence of Russian ships in Cuba revives memories of Cold War tensions, raising concerns about Russia’s military intentions and geopolitical maneuvering near U.S. borders. While the threat now is less about immediate military confrontation and more about strategic posturing, it still necessitates careful attention.

Despite the Pentagon’s dismissive stance, the deployment of Russian naval assets to Cuba is a significant geopolitical gesture. It could indicate Russia’s intent to reassert its presence in the Western Hemisphere, echoing Cold War dynamics and possibly responding to increased NATO activities near Russia’s borders.

The American defense establishment is treating Russia’s southern presence with due seriousness. U.S. vessels, including three destroyers, a Coast Guard cutter, and a maritime reconnaissance aircraft, are reportedly monitoring the Russian fleet closely.

Dr. William M. LeoGrande, an expert in U.S.-Cuba relations, points out that Cuba’s dire economic situation has led to an increased dependency on Russia. Cuba’s economy has been severely impacted by intensified U.S. sanctions, the COVID-19 pandemic’s hit on tourism, and ineffective domestic policies, resulting in a significant shortage of foreign currency and hampered import capabilities.

In response to this economic crisis, Cuba has turned to Russia for assistance, harkening back to the support provided during the Soviet era. Russia has forgiven much of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt and has been a crucial provider of economic aid, reinforcing a strategic partnership that dates back to 2009. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated Cuba’s economic woes, making Russian aid in the form of food and medical supplies essential.

“In the early 1960s, the assistance from the Soviet Union saved the Cuban economy from the ravages of the U.S. embargo, thwarting the plans of successive U.S. presidents to subdue the revolutionary government. The Soviets saw Cuba as a valuable ideological outpost in Latin America, and Cuba saw the Soviet Union as a necessary partner in its struggles to break free of U.S. domination. Although that partnership collapsed with the end of the Cold War, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to rebuild it ever since his first term as Russian president. His principal lever has been economic assistance. Putin forgave 90 percent of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt and has extended larger and larger amounts of economic assistance ever since. In 2009, the economic relationship expanded into the political and diplomatic spheres when the two countries declared a ‘strategic partnership,’” writes LeoGrande.

Although the Russian invasion of Ukraine complicated this partnership due to Cuba’s historical ties with Ukraine, Cuba has slowly aligned more closely with Russia over time. According to LeoGrande, “The visiting Russian warships are Putin’s way of reminding President Biden that Moscow can challenge Washington in its own sphere of influence, a symbolic counterpoint to U.S. assistance to Ukraine. For the past several years, the U.S. Southern Command’s annual Posture Statement has cited the growing influence of ‘Strategic Competitors’ — especially Russia and China — as the top national security challenge to U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere.”

This evolving relationship between Cuba and Russia and the recent naval maneuvers underscore the need for diplomatic caution. The situation is reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with heightened tensions that hopefully, like in 1962, will eventually subside.