Putin’s latest gambit shows how desperate he has become

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 13 June 2024. © Richard Kemp

Despite the alarm among some in the Western media, we are not in Cuban missile crisis territory with Russia’s deployment of two warships and two naval support ships to Havana. The nuclear-powered submarine Kazan is certainly one of the most potent vessels in Moscow’s fleet, but in reality it is not the sub that you can see that you need to be worried about.

This deployment is a political statement, not a genuine military threat. It is aimed at strengthening ties with Cuba at a time when Vladimir Putin needs all the allies he can get, even a small Caribbean basket case. It is also a show of force meant to demonstrate Russia’s ability to project maritime power around the world. But with half the flotilla made up of a fuel tanker and a rescue tug, it’s not a very impressive one.

Much as Putin might hope to relive the ‘glory days’ of the Cold War, this is a mere shadow of the kind of force the Soviet Union was able to generate at its height. Today, Russia can’t hope to challenge the US Navy anywhere in the world, least of all off its own eastern seaboard. Don’t forget, even in its home waters, the Black Sea Fleet has been battered by a country without a navy. Using a combination of Western-supplied and home-made missiles, plus explosive-laden drone boats, Ukraine claims to have severely damaged or sunk a third of the fleet.

There is little doubt, however, about the intent behind this deployment. The visit to Havana will be followed up by a large-scale multinational air and maritime exercise in the Caribbean, the first that Russia has organised in five years. So far, little more than angry threats have been bandied about by the Kremlin in response to multiple red lines being crossed by Ukraine’s Western supporters. But now, for the first time, America has allowed long-range US-supplied missiles to be fired at targets inside Russian territory and it seems that the first tranche of Ukrainian-piloted F-16 combat planes may take to the skies within weeks. The Russian ships appear to be a display intended to rattle Putin’s Western adversaries and undermine their resolve.

Wise to that ploy, the Americans have gone out of their way to shrug it off and explain it away. Lest anyone should suggest that the appearance of Russian warships 90 miles from US shores might in any way be a reflection of Joe Biden’s weakness, a Pentagon spokesman was at pains to remind us “these are routine naval visits that we’ve seen under different administrations”.

Despite such soothing words, this event has already triggered a degree of fear in the US, with misplaced comparisons to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, and concern about the supposedly undefeatable Zircon hypersonic missiles carried by one of the ships. Such apprehension is fundamentally misguided.

Russia’s attempted show of strength is in truth a demonstration of Putin’s weakness. He has been unable to stop the West crossing his red lines time and time again, and the Kharkiv offensive has stalled. These failed intimidation tactics show just how few cards he has left to play.

All the signs are that Putin now wants to see an end to the war that he started; not least in case the volatile and unpredictable Donald Trump enters the White House in January. His best hope is for Joe Biden to try to pressure Kyiv into agreeing a ceasefire in time for the US election, allowing Biden to pose as a peacemaker even though it would be on Putin’s terms.

Image: Nasjonal digital læringsarena