Just like old times, it seems. Well, there were no visits to Venezuela during the Cold War. But the visits to Cuba happened early and often.
Now one of the old players herself is back. Vishnya AGI Viktor Leonov, SSV-175 (in Cyrillic, CCB-175), reportedly docked in Havana on Wednesday 26 February. Western media are interpreting this as an unusually quiet visit, but the surprise would be if there were more fanfare. Neither the Russian navy nor its Soviet predecessor has ever heralded the movements of intelligence collectors. Such ships have always slipped in and out of foreign ports with a minimum of notice.
The more interesting fact about SSV-175 is that she was photographed at a pier in Curacao on 30 January. She has apparently been hanging around the coast of Venezuela in the Caribbean during the weeks of unrest there. This would of course be more for Russian purposes than for anyone else’s, but we can assume there is some level of intelligence sharing going on, with Cuba at the very least.
SSV-175 would sit offshore and suck down trons, presumably relaying a great deal to an intel center in Russia, and perhaps some to Cuba as well. A key interest for both Russia and her Central American clients would be the activities of long-time U.S. allies Colombia and Panama, as well as any American activities – including civil and private – the AGI could identify and track.
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The AGI is not a fighting platform; certainly not for projecting military power ashore. She has two 30mm guns and a pair of launchers for short range anti-air missiles (the SA-N-8 “Gremlin” system, the naval version of the SA-14). Her presence in the region is not a military tactical advantage for Russia’s clients.
The timing of SSV-175’s patrol is presumably no coincidence. We don’t know exactly when she left her Northern Fleet home port on the Barents Sea, but since she was in Curacao on the 30th, we do know it was at least before 10 January (and probably before that. At an overall speed of 12 knots, the ship would have needed to leave the Barents around 2 or 3 January). It’s unlikely that the AGI is in Central America just for the excitement of popular unrest in Venezuela, however. The more interesting event could well be the deployment of the Iranian navy task force.
It’s not clear what the Russians know about that (other than what we all know). If they’re not “in” on a concealed Iranian purpose for this deployment, they would be extremely interested in what Kharg and Sabalan do when they get here. (Keep in mind, Russia and Iran cultivate each other for the convenience of certain national goals, but the idea of fraternal trust between them is laughable. Iran is more likely to pursue her objectives in Latin America without informing Russia of every move than the reverse.)
The Iranian frigate and supply ship could have arrived in Venezuela, at the very earliest, on 21 February. I doubt they did, however. They would have had to move at a brisk clip with almost no stopping to do it. The Russian AGI’s diversion to Cuba may mean that the Iranian ships are on their Atlantic transit at the moment, after a final refueling stop in Northwest Africa. The Russians will presumably be tracking the Iranian ships, as we can assume the U.S. is.
The Iranian ships’ first arrival won’t necessarily get wide coverage, however. If Kharg is carrying something naughty, Iran and Venezuela will want to offload it before letting the cameras start clicking.