Russia sends clear message - and spy ship - on eve of US-Cuba talks

The US is sending its highest-level delegation to Cuba in 35 years this week. But Russia doesn't want to be left out.

Port laborers work near the Viktor Leonov, a Russian spy ship, docked at the port in Havana days before a US delegation is scheduled to arrive in Cuba for talks with the Cuban government.

In what seems unlikely to be coincidence, a huge Russian naval spy ship sailed into Havana harbor and docked in plain sight, just one day before the highest-level US delegation in decades arrives to discuss the end of over half a century of US-Cuba enmity.

Experts say the unannounced appearance of the the Viktor Leonov, one of the Russian Navy's newest surveillance ships, is part of a complicated dance between Cuba, the US, and Russia. All three sides seek to define new terms and test the limits of influence as an era ends in Cuba. President Obama's offer to begin loosening elements of a US-imposed embargo that's been in place since 1961 is expected to create waves across the isolated communist island nation.

"Everybody's got something they want to say here," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. From the US’s desire to “maximize the penetration of democratic ideas,” to Cuba’s hope of opening up, yet still maintaining its regime and relations with Russia, Mr. Makarkin says. “As for Moscow, it wants to maintain its ties with Cuba too."

Hence, the Viktor Leonov hovering in Havana harbor, Russian experts say. It sends a clear message to the arriving US delegation: You're welcome, but Russia is still welcome here as well.

The US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Roberta Jacobson, is slated to hold three days of talks in Havana, settling practical matters related to reopening the US Embassy after more than half a century, and meeting with Cuban government, opposition, and business representatives.

So far Washington's reaction to the Russian ship's sudden appearance has been calm. "It's not unprecedented. It's not unusual. It's not alarming," an unnamed US defense official told Agence France-Presse.

The Viktor Leonov has been in the Western Hemisphere for some time, and Russian experts say it is tasked with spying on US communications and military installations. In recent months it's reportedly been spotted in international waters near naval facilities such as the nuclear submarine base at Kings Bay, Georgia. It has visited Havana twice in the past year, though both of those port calls were officially announced by the Cuban government.

Last summer Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Cuba, forgave most of its Soviet-era debt, and signed an array of business deals. Cuba reportedly agreed to let Russia reopen the sprawling former-Soviet intelligence gathering base at Lourdes, near Havana, though the move has never been officially confirmed.

"Whatever you want to say, this visit by a Russian warship to Havana at such a sensitive moment clearly carries a strong political message," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.

"It's clearly a victory for those in the Kremlin who want to derail any hopes of improvement in US-Russian relations," Mr. Konovalov says. "And it marks one more ­– small – downward notch in a generally deteriorating picture."

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