Russian Warship Mystery: Why Is Heavily Armed Vessel Docked In Cuba?

A Russian warship, armed with anti-aircraft missiles and heavy guns, quietly pulled into a Havana port Thursday, about 200 miles from Miami. While Russian ships visit Cuba with some regularity, their arrivals are usually major events in Cuba with wide coverage in the state media there and even tours offered to Cuban citizens.

But this time, the Russian warship seems to have arrived in secret. Why it is there remains a total mystery.

A Russian embassy official who spoke to the new agency Reuters but would not give his name described the visit by the Soviet-era Viktor Leonov SSV-175 a "friendly" one, saying "it should leave tomorrow."

Also on Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russia planned to set up military bases in Cuba, a perhaps ominous development, but one that makes the unannounced visit of the warship Viktor Leonov seem like less of a puzzle.

Russia will also establish bases in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Singapore, and the Seychelle islands, which are off of the African coast, Shoigu announced.

The Viktor Leonov is an intelligence-gathering vessel, though armed like a warship, that last made a stop in Cuba two years ago. It was first set to sea in 1988, during what proved to be the waning years of the Soviet Union.

The last Russian military installation in Cuba closed in 2002. But Russia is now looking to stretch its military tentacles to locations around the world once again as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War era, from the end of World War II until the breakup and fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The only Russian base outside of Russia is currently in Syria, but what use the Russians get out of it during the Syrian civil war is unclear.

While the United States Defense Department has not yet commented in the presence of the Russian warship, Senator John McCain — a frequent media go-to for comment on military issues — dismissed the Russian warship off of Cuba as "just a little bit of saber rattling" on the part of Russian president Vladimir Putin.