Russian Spy Ship Docked in Havana Before US-Cuba Talks

Felipe Pagliery  (Progreso Weekly)

The Viktor Leonov Russian intelligence gathering ship.
The Viktor Leonov Russian intelligence gathering ship.

HAVANA TIMES — Eyebrows went up everywhere on Tuesday (Jan. 20) when a Russian intelligence ship docked in Havana on the eve of the diplomatic talks between Cuba and the United States. Its arrival had not been previously announced by either the Cuban or the Russian government.

It wasn’t the first time that the Viktor Leonov had visited the Cuban capital. It had made similar unannounced stopovers in February and March of 2014. This week’s arrival drew more attention. Was it a coincidence that it took place at such a watershed moment in Cuba-U.S. relations or was it an “in your face” gesture by Russian President Vladimir Putin to President Obama?

Konstantin SivkovKonstantin Sivkov

Some observers — myself included — saw it as a not-so-subtle reminder that Russia has made a major investment in Cuba and plans to hold on to its gains no matter what inroads the U.S. makes in Cuba.

“The Cuban government is trying to reduce political tensions with the United States,” said Konstantin Sivkov, president of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, in an interview with the Russian Free Press agency, but in the process is “departing from the principles of socialism and tolerating in its territory elements of capitalism.”

An improvement in relations “would allow the U.S. to consider Cuba as a country about to open to capitalist society. Washington seeks to consolidate and strengthen this trend, since Cuba’s transition — on capitalist rails — would mean its separation from Russia.

“Cuba is striving to create a more favorable environment for its development,” Sivkov continues. For a long time, it relied completely on the Soviet Union “but [Boris] Yeltsin’s Russia put Cuba in a situation of very hard economic survival.

“Havana believes that situation could be repeated if another Boris Yeltsin comes to power in Russia. That is why Cuba seeks to diversify its political and economic ties with the United States.”

Right now, “Russia’s position in Cuba is much better than the United States’ — and we just need to protect it,” Sivkov sums up.

Aleksandr KonovalovAleksandr Konovalov

And that is why Moscow is reminding everyone that it is still the thousand-pound bear in the middle of the room.

As Aleksei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, told The Christian Science Monitor, Washington is trying “to maximize the penetration of democratic ideas” in Cuba; Havana is trying to open up “yet still maintaining its regime and relations with Russia,” and “Moscow wants to maintain its ties with Cuba too.”

The Viktor Leonov spy ship’s presence in Havana “sends a clear message to the arriving U.S. delegation,” the newspaper says. “You’re welcome, but Russia is still welcome here as well.”

Aleksandr Konovalov, president of the Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow, agrees with that opinion. The ship’s visit “at such a sensitive moment clearly carries a strong political message,” he told the CSM.

Alluding to Russian government hardliners, Konovalov calls the ship’s presence “clearly a victory for those in the Kremlin who want to derail any hopes of improvement in US-Russia relations. And it marks one more small downward notch in a generally deteriorating picture.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Cuba are going to great lengths to minimize the significance of the ship’s visit. Cuba’s official press has not mentioned it, and an unidentified Pentagon official told the French news agency AFP that “it’s not unprecedented, it’s not unusual and it’s not alarming.”

In Moscow, an unidentified source at Northern Fleet headquarters told the Russian agency Tass that the ship was “performing routine tasks in the Caribbean” and stopped in Havana for three days “to resupply” — the same three days that the U.S. delegation would be there.

The Viktor Leonov is a Vishnya-class electronic surveillance ship that has been gathering intelligence along the eastern coast of the United States for a while. It monitors military and some civilian communications and regularly patrols the North Atlantic and the Caribbean.

Built in Poland in 1988, it has a 200-man crew. Its hull designation is SSV-175 (CCB-175 in Cyrillic alphabet), where SSV stands for Sudno Svyazey, or Communications Vessel. It is named after a Navy officer who twice received the Hero of the Soviet Union medal for his World War Two exploits in the Soviet Naval Scouts, the equivalent of the U.S. Navy SEALS.

11 thoughts on “Russian Spy Ship Docked in Havana Before US-Cuba Talks

  • July 30, 2015 at 3:41 pm

    In response to Griffin, the reference to Yeltsin was not made by author Pagliery. It was a quotation from Konstantin Sivkov, president of the Russian Academy of Geopolitical Problems.

  • January 29, 2015 at 9:39 am

    The ship Viktor Leonov is named after a Russian sailor of the same name. In WWII, Viktor Nikolayevitch Leonov helped form the Soviet Naval Scouts, a forerunner of the Russian special forces, or Spetsnaz. He was one tough warrior, and a hero of the USSR, but hardly the peaceful man you imagine.

  • January 29, 2015 at 9:30 am

    Very few Canadian federal or provincial governments are elected with a full majority of the popular vote. Our Parliament is elected in free and fair democratic elections. The government is formed from those elections according to the fundamental law of the land, the constitution. The government is constrained to act within the laws of the constitution. Yesterday in Parliament, the leader of the opposition, Tom Mulcair, launched a rather effective attack on the government which earned him front page coverage in all the major daily papers and a lead on the CBC news. That would never happen in a dictatorship.

    Perhaps you qualify your comment by calling it a “sort-of-dictatorship” because you would be perfectly happy to see your preferred party rule with 39% of the popular vote? Was Bob Rae’s NDP government a dictatorship, too?

    I don’t support the idea of proportional representation as proposed by Fair Vote because that scheme takes power away from voters and local riding associations and hands that power to political parties and their ruling committees. The political parties would produce the lists of party loyalists who would take the seats assigned in a proportional electoral system. The MP assigned to represent your particular riding may not be at all popular among the people of that riding, but you get stuck with him. These list MPs would be responsible to their political party, not to the voters in their riding. That seems undemocratic to me. Our system is based on the principles of representative and responsible government. Proportional voting lists diminish both principles.

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