HAVANA - A Russian antisubmarine destroyer and two logistical warships docked in Cuba yesterday, sending a message to Washington in waters just 90 miles from Florida.
The arrival is part of a tour that has included stops in Venezuela and Panama and shows Moscow's desire to flex some muscle in America's backyard after Washington supported the former Soviet republic of Georgia. It also signals that Cuba is willing to hedge its bets and fall back on Cold War allies, even as President Raul Castro reaches out to the United States, offering to negotiate directly with President-elect Barack Obama and proposing an unprecedented swap of political prisoners held in his country for five Cuban spies behind bars in America.
"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.
Russians 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 there until Tuesday, and the crew planned a tour of Havana that includes a trip to a Cuban naval school.
A ceremonial 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 American cargo aboard.
Washington's nearly 50-year-old trade embargo prohibits American tourists from visiting Cuba, but the United States has allowed cash-only sales of its agricultural products to the island since 2000 and has long since become the country's largest source of food.
Yesterday marked the first time that Russian military ships have visited Cuba since the end of the Soviet era.