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Base Bluster: Doubts Cloud Russian Talk Of Far-Flung Military Outposts

  • Tom Balmforth

Russian naval personnel stand in front of the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov in Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus in 2012.

Russian naval personnel stand in front of the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov in Syria's Mediterranean port of Tartus in 2012.

MOSCOW -- As ties between Moscow and Washington plunge to new lows over the conflict in Syria, official rhetoric and Russian media reports suggest the Kremlin is busily working behind the scenes to ramp up its global reach with military bases from the Caribbean to Southeast Asia.

On October 7, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov told parliament that Moscow is “calmly” taking a new look at its decision to close Soviet-era bases in Vietnam and Cuba in 2002.

“As far as our presence in distant areas is concerned, we are dealing with this,” he said.

On October 10, citing unnamed Russian sources, the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia reported that Moscow and Cairo are in secret talks for Russia to reclaim a Soviet-era air base at Sidi-Barrani by 2019 -- a move that would give the Russian military a permanent presence in North Africa.

The statements and reports came as parliament was ratifying legislation supporting an open-ended military deployment in Syria, where Russia has established an air base to aid its role backing President Bashar al-Assad in a brutal civil war and is planning to bolster its existing naval facility at Tartus.

Moves to expand Russia’s global military footprint would be in keeping with President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to portray the country as a resurgent power. Putin restarted long-distance voyages by Russian warships several years ago, and opening bases in Cuba, Vietnam, and Egypt would be a giant step to reverse the post-Soviet retreat of its military.

It would also be a big challenge to the United States, whose military has been dominant since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was Putin who decided to shut the bases in 2002 -- pragmatic moves that he is widely believed to have made in part to please Washington during his first term, at a time when relations were much warmer than they are now.

But analysts doubt that the expansive talk presages the actual establishment of major bases, particularly in Vietnam and Cuba, seeing the rhetoric instead as a salvo in mutual recriminations and warning signals between Washington and Moscow.

“I think it’s all talk,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, a Moscow-based foreign policy expert and editor in chief of the journal Russia In Global Affairs. "We are back to confrontation mode. Both sides. And now everyone will say a lot of interesting things just to, so to say, impress the other side."

‘Harmless Exotica’

He and others said that in regions that are not crucial to current Kremlin foreign policy, ambitions for foreign bases will be restrained by the recession that has gripped Russia for nearly two years, prompting the Finance Ministry to aim to cut military spending by 6 percent over the next three years.

Syria is outside this calculus, analysts said, because Russia is using bases there rent-free -- and because the Middle Eastern nation is a key component of the Kremlin’s foreign policy agenda and a central battleground in its confrontation with the West.

The Russian destroyer Admiral Chabanenko arrives in Havana in 2008.

The Russian destroyer Admiral Chabanenko arrives in Havana in 2008.

But in a column published by the news site, Russian foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov described plans to reestablish bases in Cuba and Vietnam -- thousands of kilometers from foreign policy focuses Syria and Ukraine -- as “harmless exotica.”

The Soviet Union established a major listening post around 250 kilometers from the U.S. coast at Lourdes in Cuba in 1962 -- the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- and the base remained there until Putin shut it in 2002.

There have been numerous rumors of Russian plans to return to the Caribbean as relations with the United States have worsened. In February 2014, as ties frayed badly amid Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests against a Moscow-backed president, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was actively seeking to expand its military presence and named Cuba, among others, as a possible venue.

In Havana a few months later, however, Putin seemed to dismiss the plans by saying that Russia is “capable of resolving tasks in the area of defense without this component."

Later that year, Washington and Havana embarked on a major thaw that has seen Washington ease trade restrictions on Cuba and open an embassy in the communist country after decades of distrust. Analysts doubt that Cuba would risk forsaking this normalization of relations -- and huge potential trade revenue -- by offering the Kremlin a major base on its territory.

“I am skeptical about Cuba,” Frolov tells RFE/RL. “There has been talk about this intelligence base, relaunching the base. Perhaps there might be some modest installations and some resupply point for the Russian Navy and Russian Air Force. But not anything on the scale that the Soviets had in Cuba.”

Despite the rising strategic importance of the Indian and Pacific oceans, analysts express doubt that Russia would try to stage a return to its naval base in Vietnam -- in part because such a move would be opposed by China.

The Soviet Union obtained its naval base at Cam Ranh Bay in 1979, after the brief Sino-Vietnamese War, when it was seen in Vietnam as helping to contain China. The base was downsized after the Soviet collapse, and Moscow withdrew entirely in 2002. Since late 2013, Russia has signed several agreements with Vietnam allowing Russian ships and submarines to refuel, resupply, and carry out maintenance at the site.

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    Tom Balmforth

    Tom Balmforth covers Russia and other former Soviet republics. He can be reached at