At a time of escalated tensions with the West over Ukraine, Russia says it is negotiating with eight governments around the world for access to military facilities, to enable it to extend its long-range naval and strategic bomber capabilities.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said last Wednesday the military was engaged in talks with Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Algeria, Cyprus, the Seychelles, Vietnam and Singapore.
“We need bases for refueling near the equator, and in other places,” ITAR-Tass quoted him as saying.
Russia is not looking to establish bases in those locations, but to reach agreement to use facilities there when required.
The countries are all strategically located – in three leftist-ruled countries close to the U.S.; towards either end of the Mediterranean; in the Indian Ocean south of the Gulf of Aden; and near some of the world’s most important shipping lanes in the Malacca Strait and South China Sea.
Access to the new locations would extend the Russian military’s potential reach well beyond its existing extraterritorial bases, at the Syrian port of Tartus and in former Soviet states – Ukraine’s Sevastopol, Armenia, Belarus, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and the occupied Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Shoigu said Russia was also beefing up its existing military presence in the post-Soviet region, doubling its troop numbers in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and deploying a regiment of troops to Belarus where it already has fighter aircraft stationed.
The RIA Novosti state news agency commented
“Russia has started reviving its navy and strategic aviation since mid-2000s, seeing them as a tool to project the Russian image abroad and to protect its national interests around the globe.”
“Now, Moscow needs to place such military assets in strategically important regions of the world to make them work effectively toward the goal of expanding Russia’s global influence.”
During his previous tenure at the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin in 2002 shut down a Cold War-era radar base in Cuba and a naval base in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. Russia cited financial constraints, but the move was also seen at the time as an attempt to improve relations with Washington.
The listening station near Havana had been a key intelligence facility for decades, while the Vietnamese base, which was built by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, was leased to the Soviet Union in 1979 and became the largest Soviet base in the world beyond Moscow’s Warsaw Pact allies.
Upon his return to the presidency in 2012, Putin began exploring options to renew alliances with the communist countries, and Russian Navy chief Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov said that year Cuba and Vietnam were in the frame.
Russia is now helping Vietnam to upgrade facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, including a submarine training center, and Russia is negotiating for preferential access to refueling and repair facilities there for its ships.
As for the Western hemisphere, Russian Navy ships in 2008 made their first visit since the end of the Cold War, holding joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan Navy in the Caribbean, navigating the Panama Canal, and making a port call in Havana.
Russian Navy vessels visited Cuba again in 2009 and last August – and last Wednesday, a Russian intelligence-gathering ship, the Viktor Leonov, docked in Havana harbor with no explanation from the government or state media coverage, the Associated Press reported.
Russian strategic bombers also visited the region in 2008 – for the first
time since long-range flights by the aircraft were halted after the Soviet Union’s collapse – and again last fall, when two Tupolev “Blackjacks” carried out combat training patrols between Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Russian defense spending has been climbing sharply in the years since its last military engagement – the invasion of Georgia in August 2008 – and early this year it was reported to have overtaken Britain to become the world’s third biggest spender, behind the U.S. and China.
According to the British consultancy HIS Jane’s, Russia’s defense expenditure has more than doubled since 2007, and will have tripled by 2016.