On March 2, the UN General Assembly, meeting in emergency session, voted 141 to 5, to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To the surprise of many, Cuba abstained, despite its close relations with Moscow and its belief that the West instigated the crisis by expanding NATO right up to Russia’s borders, ignoring its legitimate security concerns. 

To understand Cuba’s position on Ukraine, we need only look back at previous occasions when Cuba had to walk the same diplomatic tightrope.

Cuba’s friendship with Russia dates back to the 1960s, when the Soviet Union embraced the Cuban revolution, providing the arms Cubans used to defeat the U.S.-sponsored exile invasion at the Bay of Pigs, as well as the financial aid Cuba needed to survive the U.S. economic embargo. Soviet aid was a matter of life and death in Cuba’s confrontation with the United States.

Relations with Moscow broke down after the Soviet Union collapsed, when Boris Yeltsin abruptly cut off economic assistance, plunging the island into a decade-long depression. But in 2000, President Vladimir Putin visited Havana to begin rebuilding relations. Over the next two decades, a series of trade deals deepened economic ties. Then, in 2009, Raúl Castro visited Moscow and the two countries agreed to a “strategic partnership” to include tourism, economic, scientific, and diplomatic cooperation, and renewed “technical military cooperation.” Five years later, Putin canceled 90 percent of Cuba’s $32 billion Soviet-era debt.

Just days before Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine, Putin dispatched Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov to Havana to “deepen bilateral ties, and Russia agreed to postpone until 2027 payments on Cuba’s new $2.3 billion debt. 

Although Cuba is nowhere near as dependent on Russia today as it was dependent on the Soviet Union, Russia is once again Cuba’s principal ally among the major powers .

After Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the Cuban government’s public statements blamed the West for creating the conditions that led to the crisis by ignoring Russia’s repeated warnings about NATO expansion. Yet despite echoing Russia’s rationale for the attack, Cuba never endorsed it. On the contrary, in the UN General Assembly debate, Cuba’s representative. Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, noted Russia’s “non-observance of legal principles and international norms.”

Cuba no longer has any special ideological affinity for Russia and is far less dependent on it economically than it was on the Soviet Union in 1968 or 1979. But neither can Havana afford to spurn the one major power that has stood most consistently by Cuba’s side through decades of U.S. efforts at subversion. Realpolitik dictates that Cuba cultivate good relations with major powers like Russia and China so long as it lives in the shadow of a hostile United States.


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