Russian warship visits Cuba, bringing missiles within 30 miles of US

The Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kazan arrives at Havana's harbour
The Russian nuclear-powered submarine Kazan arrives at Havana's harbour - YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

A warship armed with hypersonic missiles docked in Cuba as the Russian navy carried out missile drills in the Atlantic in a show of force amid rising global tensions.

The Admiral Gorshkov frigate was accompanied by the nuclear-powered submarine Kazan and two supply vessels, one a military tug and the other a fuel carrier, as it sailed within 30 miles of Florida.

Washington responded with submarine-hunter spy planes and sea drones to track the most significant Russian deployment to the Caribbean island in years.

The arrival of the warships in Cuba has echoes of the Cold War, when the Communist regimes in Moscow and Havana competed with the West for geopolitical power – and the 1962 Cuban missile crisis almost triggered nuclear Armageddon.

But the Biden administration downplayed the significance of the visit from the Gorshkov and the Kazan, emphasising that neither vessel was carrying nuclear weapons and Moscow had the right to hold war games in international waters.

The crew of the frigate in a closer shot, in their white dress uniforms on deck
The crew of the frigate stood to attention - Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

“Russia’s deployments are part of routine naval activity which pose no direct threat or concern to the United States,” an official from US Northern Command told The Telegraph.

However, the Pentagon sent three guided-missile destroyers and several Boeing P-8 maritime reconnaissance planes to shadow the convoy, as it skirted close to the Florida coast.

US intelligence has assessed that the Gorshkov may be armed with Zircon hypersonic missiles. One of Russia’s most modern weapons, with a range of just over 600 miles, they can hit both land and sea targets.

That means that southern Florida, including Miami – just 230 miles from Havana – is well within range.

But Evan Ellis, a professor at the US Army war college, dismissed flotilla’s presence in Cuba as “pure kabuki theatre”, with symbolic rather than strategic significance, aimed largely at the domestic audience in Russia.

The frigate seen from the front, with small Cuban boats tied up in the foreground
Washington used spy planes and sea drones to track the flotilla - Yamil Lage/AFP

The Admiral Gorshkov fired a 21-gun salute as it entered the port of Havana on Wednesday morning. Cuban forces reciprocated by discharging canons from an 18th-century Spanish fort overlooking the harbour.

The deployment allows Vladimir Putin to project strength on the world stage – even as the Russian military has become bogged down in a war of attrition in Ukraine that has exacted a huge toll in lives and hardware and shown up its combat limitations.

“It’s clear that Russia doesn’t have the sustainable capability to project significant military force into the Western Hemisphere,” Dr Ellis said, noting that the deployment was a “protest response” to the Biden administration authorising Ukraine to use US-supplied weapons to strike inside Russia.

Analyst Steffan Watkins said: “I think it’s as much for domestic audiences as sabre-rattling. It’s still a tiny fraction of the sort of naval activity the Soviets had in the Atlantic during the Cold War, based on declassified CIA reports from the time.”

The frigate from the side, with Cuban lookers-on
The Admiral Gorshkov gave a gun salute as it entered the harbour - Adalberto Roque/AFP

Dr Ellis also highlighted that the frigate and submarine were accompanied by a tug. That, he said, revealed the dilapidated state of the Russian navy, which has fared disastrously in the war in Ukraine, with even Russia’s Black Sea flagship Moskva being sunk in 2022.

“The fact that they are sending a tug tells you everything. They can’t even rely on the Cubans or the Venezuelans if their ships break down,” he added.

The two vessels are expected to stay in Havana for five days, with civilians allowed to tour the frigate. They will then take part in war games with the Cuban navy.

They may also visit Venezuela, another of Russia’s handful of allies, all with floundering economies, in Latin America.