3 Russian Warships Make Stop in Cuba

APRussians waving Friday to sailors on the anti-submarine destroyer Admiral Chabanenko as it sails into Havana Bay.
HAVANA -- A Russian anti-submarine destroyer and two logistical warships docked in Cuba on Friday, a thumb-your-nose port call aimed at the United States in waters just 145 kilometers from Florida.

The arrival extends a tour that included stops in Venezuela and Panama and shows Moscow's desire to flex some muscle in the United States' backyard.

Russian sailors in white and tan dress uniforms stood at attention on the deck of the Admiral Chabanenko destroyer, which chugged into Havana Bay amid a cloud of gray smoke. The ships will be moored here until Tuesday, and the crew planned a tour of Havana that includes a trip to a Cuban naval school.

A Cuban cannon fired a 21-blast salute that rattled the windows of nearby buildings, and a naval band waiting on a cruise ship dock played the Russian and Cuban national anthems. A hulking barge that frequently ferries U.S. food to the island happened to be waiting in the area but had to move to make room for the Russian warships. It was unclear whether it had any U.S. cargo aboard.

The warships' visit comes even as President Raul Castro reaches out to Washington, offering to negotiate directly with President-elect Barack Obama and proposing an unprecedented swap of political prisoners.

"That is Cuba's diplomatic specialty, playing both sides, or all sides, on every issue," said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

The Soviet Union provided billions of dollars in trade and annual subsidies to Cuba. Relations soured after the Soviet collapse but have improved greatly, with President Dmitry Medvedev visiting Havana in November.

Friday marked the first time Russian military ships have visited Cuba since the end of the Soviet era. About 100 Cubans -- as well as tourists from Russia and other foreign destinations -- watched the arrival from a nearby sidewalk. The crowd grew so large that police blocked off the right lane of a crowded boulevard adjacent the bay. "This shows relations with Russia never deteriorated," said Eric Hernandez, a naval administrative employee who left his office across the street for a closer view. "Russia is a brother nation to Cuba, and Cuba has brother nations all over the world, despite what the United States wants."

But another onlooker, retired airport employee Jorge Fernandez, said he hoped the Russian visit would not send Washington the wrong signal.

"The new president of the United States wants peace and tranquility with Cuba," he said. "This is positive for Cuba and Russia. But they might not agree in the United States."