Russia is in talks to set up naval bases in former Cold War allies Cuba and Vietnam as President Vladimir Putin undertakes the country’s biggest military overhaul since the Soviet era.
“We are working on establishing navy bases outside Russia,” Vice-Admiral Viktor Chirkov, the navy’s commander-in- chief since May, said in an interview with the state-run RIA Novosti news service and confirmed by the navy. “We aim to set up resupply bases in Cuba, the Seychelles and Vietnam.”
Russia’s intentions for overseas military expansion threaten to further strain relations with the U.S. when the former superpower rivals are at loggerheads over American missile-shield plans and how to respond to the fighting in Syria. Putin’s government plans to spend 23 trillion rubles ($712 billion) this decade on defense spending, including 4.4 trillion rubles next year, an increase of 19 percent.
“There’s a lot of tension between Washington and Moscow right now as Syria is creating a lot of bad feeling between them,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst in Moscow. “This will be seen by some in the U.S. as the Russian bear growling in its lair.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Russia has “a right to enter into military agreements and relationships” with other nations, just as the U.S. does. He didn’t raise concern about Russia seeking military access to Cuba, which lies near the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico and is 145 kilometers (90 miles) south of the Florida Keys.
“I’m aware of the reports, but I don’t know that an agreement has been reached between the Russians and Cubans on a base,” Little told reporters at the Pentagon today.
U.S. Air Force General Norton Schwartz in 2008 warned Russia not to cross a “red line” by stationing bombers in Cuba, where the deployment of Soviet missiles brought Moscow and Washington close to nuclear conflict in 1962. Schwartz commented after the newspaper Izvestia said Russia planned to build a refueling base for strategic aircraft in the Communist island state in response to U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile- defense system in Europe. The Russian Defense Ministry later denied the report.
Under the deal that ended the 1962 Cuban crisis, the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles and pledged not to station offensive weapons on the island. Russian military cooperation with Cuba ended in 2002 after Russia closed its radar base at Lourdes, Russia’s only intelligence-gathering center in the Western hemisphere, which had been operating since the 1960s.
Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang said in an interview broadcast by Voice of Russia radio that his country is ready to let Russia set up a servicing facility in Cam Ranh Bay, a former Soviet naval base, though Vietnam will not lease its territory to any country.
In June, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visited the one-time hub of American military activity seeking greater naval access to the port as the U.S. rebalances its forces toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Sang held talks with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow yesterday and met Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi today. Cuban leader Raul Castro held talks with Putin in Moscow earlier this month. Calls to the Cuban Embassy in Moscow weren’t answered.
Vietnam backs Russia’s criticism of U.S. plans to expand missile-defense sites, which improves security in some nations at the expense of others, the countries said in a joint communique today after the talks.
Russia risks losing its only military base outside the former Soviet Union, a naval resupply facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, as President Bashar al-Assad fights for survival in the face of a 17-month uprising.
Russia doesn’t have the naval resources at the moment for a permanent presence outside its territorial waters, with only about 30 major warships split between five fleets, so the possibility of opening resupply bases doesn’t mean an expansion of Russian maritime power, Felgenhauer said.
“But this is good news for the U.S. navy” as it seeks to protect its funding in a time of budget cuts, Felgenhauer said. “They can go to Congress to warn that Russia is trying to get a presence around the world.”
Chirkov said yesterday that Russia may take delivery of 10 to 15 naval ships this year, including frigates and nuclear- powered submarines, according to RIA Novosti.
The Russian Navy has been rebuilding since 2008, after falling to about one-quarter its Soviet-era peak, according to Thomas Fedyszyn, a retired Navy captain who is a national security professor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Russia sees its navy as a tool to “project the Russian image abroad and ensure the security of all Russian economic expansion,” he wrote in the March issue of Proceedings, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute. “Russian task groups in the Caribbean will be increasing Russia’s international stature as well as selling arms to Latin American nations, rather than threatening American military exercises,” he wrote.
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