Canadian warship sharing an anchorage with Russian vessels in Cuba

The Royal Canadian Navy now finds itself in the unusual position of both shadowing Russian warships as a threat in the Caribbean and sharing an anchorage with them as a guest in the port of Havana — because Canada accepted an invitation to send a patrol ship to Cuba while the Russian navy is in town.

And it's not clear just who in government or the military knew about the invitation from Cuba. The Caribbean nation has been a full-throated supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine and Cubans have been fighting alongside Russian soldiers in that country.

For several days, the frigate HMCS Ville de Québec has been tasked with shadowing the Russian ships, which conducted missile exercises during their Atlantic crossing using Moscow's new Zircon hypersonic missiles. The Ville de Québec is part of a three-ship group that tracked the Russians, along with the U.S. destroyer USS Truxton and U.S. Coast Guard cutter USCGS Stone.

A Canadian CP-140 surveillance plane flying out of Jacksonville, Florida is also keeping a close eye on the Russians. The destroyer USS Donald Cook also appears to have joined the mission in the Caribbean, in addition to U.S. naval surveillance aircraft.

And yet on Friday, Canada's Harry DeWolf-class offshore patrol vessel HMCS Margaret Brooke sailed into Havana as a guest of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, just hours after the Russian flotilla docked in the same harbour.

Cuba invited the Canadians to Havana to celebrate "the long-standing bilateral relationship between Canada and Cuba," according to a tweet by Canadian Joint Operations Command.

No Canadian naval vessel had visited Cuba for more than 50 years until Justin Trudeau came to power at the end of 2015.

In November 2016, he visited Havana hoping to meet the dying Fidel Castro. That didn't happen but Trudeau did publicly embrace Raul Castro and the Castro brothers' chosen successor, Miguel Diaz-Canel, and called Cuba an "ally" of Canada during a talk at the University of Havana.

Three days later, the frigate HMCS Fredericton set sail for Havana for a visit then-defence minister Harjit Sajjan said would celebrate the "strong, positive and productive relationship" between Cuba and Canada.

A beaming Miguel Diaz-Canel looks on as Canada's Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Raul Castro in Havana on Nov. 16, 2016. Castro introduced Trudeau to the man who would replace him as president two years later.
A beaming Miguel Diaz-Canel looks on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with Raul Castro in Havana on Nov. 16, 2016. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The Trudeau government's relationship with the Cuban Communist Party regime has frequently drawn criticism from Canada's Cuban community. When Cubans took to the streets to demand the end of the 62-year dictatorship on July 11, 2021, Cuban-Canadians accused the Trudeau government of downplaying their political demands and attempting to misrepresent Cubans' demands for democracy as mere gripes about shortages of food and medicines.

The Margaret Brooke is the first Canadian warship to visit Havana since the Fredericton, and the second to visit Cuba (HMCS Charlottetown stopped in Santiago de Cuba in 2018). Many in the Cuban-Canadian community say it's less appropriate than ever for Canada to appear to bolster the Cuban regime in the wake of a harsh crackdown on dissidents that has seen the return of decades-long sentences for political prisoners.

They also cite Cuba's new and far-reaching alliance with Putin's Russia. Moscow's footprint in Cuba — which includes the re-opened Lourdes spy base — is now bigger than it has been since the end of the Cold War.

Mixed messages from Canada

It was initially unclear who in the Canadian government authorized the Havana visit or who knew that the Margaret Brooke had been invited at the same time as the Russians.

However, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Bill Blair said on Saturday that the minister authorized the port visit "on the advice of the Navy and the Canadian Joint Operations Command."

"We believe that this marked an especially important time to show a Canadian presence in the region," Daniel Minden said in a statement.

On Friday, a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence (DND) told CBC News that the department was aware the Russians would be in the Havana port on the same days as the Canadians.

But when asked about the visit on CBC's Power and Politics on Thursday evening, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told host David Cochrane she knew nothing about it.

"This is something I have to look more closely into," she said. "This is information that is news to me."

Four hours later, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson John Babcock suggested that the Cuba visit was part of a deliberate departmental strategy.

"Amidst global insecurity, Canada believes in pragmatic diplomacy to engage countries of different perspectives while we continue to uphold our values and interests and defend the international rules-based order," he told CBC News.

The friendly visit sends a confusing message about Canada's allegiances, said Russian political scientist Vladimir Rouvinski, director of the CIES Research Center at Icesi University in Colombia and an expert on Russia's presence in the Western hemisphere.

"I think it's a very unfortunate situation for Canada," he told CBC News. "It also shows that one has to be very careful when doing this kind of planning with Cuba" which, he said, "knew that Russians would come and Canada would come at the same time, of course."

Cuba has its own motives for wanting Canada to visit, said Rouvinski. "Cuba is interested in finding a way to pressure the Western countries to change their attitude towards Cuba," he said.

But by putting Canada in an embarrassing situation, he said, Cuba risks damaging its relationship with Ottawa.

The most obvious beneficiary of the situation is Russia, he said.

"There is a very important symbolic component in what is happening now in Havana Bay for Russia," he said. Russia, he argued, is sending NATO a message that if it's going to be in Russia's backyard, "Russia is capable of playing their own game in such a distant territory as the Western Hemisphere and the Caribbean."

Causing embarrassment to Canada, and creating the impression that western allies are divided over Russia, makes the symbolism even more valuable to Moscow, he added.

"It's also the message to be able to say who is controlling what," said Rouvinski.

Visit gives a boost to Communist Party

Eloy Viera is a Cuban independent journalist with the publication El Toque, a popular online publication on the island that annoys Cuban authorities by publishing black market exchange rates for dollars and euros.

He said the Communist Party will use the Canadian visit domestically to try to show the Cuban people the country is not diplomatically isolated.

"The image they want to send to the world is, 'We are with everyone, we are close to Russia, but at the same time we are also close to one of its adversaries, in this case Canada," he said.

A convertible American classic car drives by as people watch the Russia's Kazan nuclear-powered submarine arrive in the port of Havana, Cuba, Wednesday, June 12, 2024. A fleet of Russian warships arrived in Cuban waters Wednesday ahead of planned military exercises in the Caribbean.
A classic American convertible drives by as people watch Russia's Kazan nuclear-powered submarine arrive in the port of Havana on Wednesday. (Ariel Ley/The Associated Press)

Viera said Canada was unwise to accept the invitation.

"That's one of the main problems when a democratic government like Canada's deals with an autocratic regime like Cuba's — you are taking the risk to be manipulated by someone that is a master in manipulation," he said.

"Everything is part of the game that right now is being handled from Havana. It's not handled from Ottawa, it's handled from Havana."

The U.S. has made no comment on Canada's presence in Havana port but on Thursday, as the Russian nuclear submarine Kazan sailed into Havana, the U.S. nuclear-powered sub USS Helena slipped into the American base at Guantanamo Bay, a move Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodrgiuez called a "provocative escalation."

'Nothing happens by coincidence'

Juan Antonio Blanco Gil is a former Cuban diplomat and historian who lives in Miami and has written extensively about Cuba's foreign policy.

"Nothing happens by coincidence and the Russians were planning this with the Cubans," he told CBC News. Had the Cubans been interested in sparing the Canadians from an awkward cohabitation with the Russian flotilla, he said, "it would have been very easy to change the date a little bit before or after the event of the Russians.

"They didn't. So there was a point in trying to bring together these two forces in Havana."

The Russian ships are expected to leave Cuba on Monday and head for Venezuela, where the Nicolas Maduro government is another major backer of Putin and the war in Ukraine.

"The Canadian Armed Forces will continue to track the movements and activities of the Russian naval flotilla" after it departs Havana, Kened Sadiku of DND told CBC News.

People watch the Russian Navy Admiral Gorshkov frigate arrive at the port of Havana, Cuba on Wednesday, June 12, 2024. A fleet of Russian warships reached Cuban waters on Wednesday ahead of planned military exercises in the Caribbean.
People watch the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov frigate arrive at the port of Havana on Wednesday. A fleet of Russian warships reached Cuban waters on Wednesday ahead of planned military exercises in the Caribbean. (Ariel Ley/The Associated Press)

Blanco said both the Cuban and the Venezuelan regimes face a difficult summer and have reasons for wanting the Russian ships close by.

The Maduro regime agreed to hold elections this year as part of a deal to escape sanctions, although that deal fell apart in April. While Maduro has banned the main opposition candidate from running, and few expect a genuinely free vote, his United Socialist Party knows it faces a major challenge.

White House, Pentagon might have to think twice

"They want the Russians to show the flag in the Caribbean for two reasons. The Venezuelans, because they have a very difficult political crisis with the coming election, and the Cubans who are going through the worst economic, social, political crisis of the last 65 years," said Blanco.

"They are also asking this fleet to be there because if they have to eventually use lethal force to contain demonstrations ... they would like the Russians to be around to complicate decisions in the White House and the National Security Council."

Blanco said that if the U.S. wished to retaliate against either country for some crackdown, "they would have to think twice if they have Russians in the middle of the Caribbean Sea going around. I think that that is the calculation of the Cubans."

Although U.S. intelligence has assessed that neither the Zircon missiles on the Admiral Gorshkov nor the Kalibr missiles on the Kazan are fitted with nuclear warheads (though both are nuclear-capable), Blanco said he believes Havana would like to persuade the Kremlin to change that posture.

"What the Cubans are dreaming of, and what they're working for, is to inspire Putin into placing a continuous nuclear presence in Cuba through the fleet," he said.

Blanco points out that Russia has every right to send its ships fully-armed anywhere in international waters, and can even transit the Panama Canal with nuclear weapons aboard.

By simply rotating vessels such as the Gorshkov or the Kazan through the region, he said, Cuba could threaten the continental U.S. with more megatons of close-range missiles than it could have using all the land-based missiles it had in 1962.

"You don't need to re-enact the October (Cuban missile) crisis," he said.

Friendly feelings may be one-sided

Blanco said there continues to be a mismatch between Canada's friendly and trusting approach to the Cuban Communist Party and Havana's more pragmatic view of Canada.

"The Cubans have very clear in their mind who are their enemies — the United States and the West, and that includes Canada, like it or not," he said. "The Canadians have never really digested that they are seen in Havana as the enemy, as being part of the enemy because they're part of the West ... they're in an alliance with the United States."

Havana can use Canada's pride in its independent foreign policy on Cuba to drive a wedge between the two NATO allies at a time when both Russia and Cuba are moving closer because of the war in Ukraine, Blanco said.

"In the minds of the Cuban elite, Canada is not a friend, it's a country that they can — I don't want to use the word manipulate, but they can kind of dance around and make them act in ways that would not align totally with the main enemy, which obviously is the United States," he said.

"The Canadians, from their view, believe that all these gestures are going to be constructive and help to bring the Cuban elite to their senses and have them open up to a peaceful transition. I am positive that they believe so and I'm positive that they are wrong in that calculation, unfortunately.

"I would love them to be right, but unfortunately from my perspective, I don't think that they are."