HAVANA -- Three Russian navy vessels arrived Friday at the Havana harbor in the first such visit since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The destroyer Admiral Chabanenko entered the harbor before 10 a.m. with the entire crew lined up on the deck. It fired its guns in salute upon entering Havana Bay, with Cuba answering in kind with its own welcoming shots from La Cabaņa Fort.
The port call was greeted with martial music played by the Cuban navy band, while a throng of curious onlookers crowded alongside the canal that forms the entrance to the harbor.
Later, two Russian support vessels made their entrance.
A Russian diplomatic official told Efe that "the main goal of the visit is the development of relations of cooperation between the Russian navy and the Cuban navy, as well as of ties of friendship."
The former Soviet Union was Cuba's staunchest ally, buying 63 percent of the island's sugar, 73 percent of its nickel and 95 percent of its citrus - all at inflated prices as part of Moscow's massive subsidies to the Communist regime in Havana.
The Cuban economy went into a tailspin with the loss of those subsidies following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The ships will remain at the island until Dec. 23 and, according to the official, Cubans will be allowed to tour the Admiral Chabanenko over the weekend.
Cuban authorities said the Russian crewmembers will pay a courtesy visit to the head of the Cuban navy, Vice Adm. Pedro Perez Betancourt, and that meetings also will be held at the seat of Parliament and Cuba's naval academy.
The Admiral Chabanenko recently participated in joint exercises with the Venezuelan navy and also visited Nicaragua.
Russia's navy deployment to Venezuela, Cuba's close ally, was the first to the Caribbean since the Cold War and came after Moscow expressed its anger over Washington's move to send Navy vessels to Georgia during that country's recent conflict with Russia.
Although Moscow said the early-December joint exercises with Venezuela - governed by socialist Hugo Chavez, a fiery critic of U.S. foreign policy - had nothing to do with "third countries," they were widely viewed as a challenge to the U.S. influence in Latin America.
Also this month, a Russian warship traversed the Panama Canal for the first time since World War II.