Minister defends Canadian navy ship's visit to Cuba with Russian vessels in port

The decision to send a Canadian naval vessel into the port of Havana to sit alongside Russian warships this week was approved by Defence Minister Bill Blair following a request from the Canadian military, the minister said Monday.

"This was a direct result of a request that was made to me by the commander of joint operations command and the admiral in charge of the Royal Canadian Navy," Blair said.

"The port visit was carefully planned at Canada's request and it was announced by the military in advance."

Blair said Monday that the Harry DeWolf-class offshore patrol vessel HMCS Margaret Brooke, which arrived in Havana on Friday, heads back to Canadian waters Monday.

The minister defended the deployment after CBC News reported the Canadian ship shared an anchorage with Russian naval vessels over the weekend.

Blair said Monday that he was aware Russian warships would be in the port of Havana when he gave the navy authorization to request permission from Cuba to send the HMCS Margaret Brooke into its waters.

"The Canadian ship visited Havana to demonstrate Canada's presence, naval capability and commitment to safe and open waters in the Americas," he said.

"This was a military mission. They asked for my authority to do that and I gave it."

Cuba supports Russian President Vladimir Putin's war on Ukraine and Cubans have been fighting alongside Russian soldiers in that country.

Monitoring the Russian naval flotilla

Last week, the HMCS Ville de Québec, the U.S. destroyer USS Truxton and the U.S. Coast Guard cutter USCGS Stone shadowed a flotilla of Russian warships as they crossed the Atlantic toward the Caribbean.

During the crossing, the Russian ships held missile exercises using Moscow's new Zircon hypersonic missiles. Blair said the flotilla poses "no immediate threat" to Canada.

Canadian navy patrol boat HMCS Margaret Brooke passes by Russian nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine Kazan and frigate Admiral Gorshkov, as it enters Havana's bay, Cuba, June 14, 2024.
Canadian navy patrol boat HMCS Margaret Brooke passes by the Russian nuclear powered cruise missile submarine Kazan and the frigate Admiral Gorshkov as it enters Havana's bay in Cuba on June 14, 2024. (Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters)

Canada also deployed CP-140 patrol aircraft to monitor the flotilla as it moved down the eastern seaboard, Blair said.

"As they entered into Cuban waters, we were able to continue into the Havana harbour. That was part of the job," he said.

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

Blair said the Canadian military will continue to track the movements and activities of the Russian ships after they leave Havana.

Canada is "committed to maintaining a credible military presence in the sea and in the air around our continent," Blair said.

"Any foreign actors coming into our neighbourhood can expect to see our armed forces fulfilling their mission to protect Canada's interests," he added.

James Bezan, the Conservative Party's national defence critic, told a House of Commons committee Monday that he was "completely disgusted" by the decision to send the HMCS Margaret Brooke to Havana.

He later issued a statement saying that with Canada's navy under financial strain, "it's incomprehensible and bewildering that Trudeau spared no expense to send a Canadian naval ship to honour a communist dictatorship alongside the Russian navy."