Last week (October 7), the Russian Duma unanimously ratified an agreement signed in August 2015 with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to indefinitely lease for free the Khmeimim airbase, near the port city Latakia, on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. Russian jets have been using the Khmeimim base for more than a year to bomb the Syrian anti-al-Assad opposition and Islamic State fighters. During the ratification process, Duma deputies also asked Deputy Defense Minister Army-General (ret.) Nikolai Pankov about possible plans to reclaim former Soviet foreign military bases in Cuba and Vietnam, which Russia had abandoned some 15 years ago. Pankov replied: “That is a very good question. We see the problem and are reconsidering previous decisions to enhance our presence in forward positions” (Militarynews.ru, October 7).
Pankov’s comment ignited a jingoistic storm in Moscow about Russia returning in force to the far-flung reaches of the world. Duma deputies enthusiastically pledged to support the Russian military’s return to the Lourdes Signals Intelligence facility near Havana, Cuba, which used to intercept phone, radio and other electronic communications from the United States. The deepwater Cam Ranh Bay—a former US air and naval base on the Vietnam coast—later allowed the Soviet Union to project air and naval power into South Asia and the Pacific region (Interfax, October 10). The pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia reported that in addition to Lourdes and Cam Ranh, Russia is in talks with Egypt to open an air and possibly naval base “to track US military activities in the region” (Izvestia, October 10).
However, Egyptian authorities swiftly repudiated any intention of providing Russia with military bases (RIA Novosti, October 10). Cairo is in dire need of money and wants Russia to allow its tourists to resume cheap charter flights to Egyptian sea resorts, disregarding possible terrorist threats. At the same time, Egypt needs continued military and financial help from the US and Saudi Arabia. Washington and Riyadh want Moscow to change its policies in Syria and stop the brutal bombing offensive over Aleppo; they might try to punish Cairo by cutting back aid, if the Egyptians provide the Russians with military bases. Meanwhile, Russia, which is stagnating economically and struggling to contain its budget deficit, lacks the resources to effectively take on Egypt as a client state.
Hanoi agreed to lease free of charge Cam Ranh Bay to Moscow in 1979, after a short but bloody Vietnamese-Chinese border war. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union and China were archenemies, and a Soviet air force regiment together with anti-aircraft missiles and the 17th operational naval squadron of over 20 warships and submarines were deployed in Cam Ranh Bay. Today, China is Russia’s most important strategic partner, while Vietnam is locked in a territorial dispute with China. It is highly improbable that Moscow would risk antagonizing Beijing by returning in force to Cam Ranh Bay. Rather, Russian naval ships may from time to time dock in Cam Ranh, as the US Navy has begun this year. A return to Cuba is possible, on the other hand, but the Russian presence there would be much smaller than before, according to military sources (News-front.info, October 7). Moscow paid Havana some $200 million a year for the use of Lourdes. But with the present Russian budgetary crunch—on top of additional substantial expenses to rebuild, reequip and supply Lourdes—spending this much today could be a problem for Moscow. And after all, Russian agents and hackers seem rather effective at obtaining lots of sensitive intelligence in America without the need to invest heavily in a Cuban facility.
As the Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) moved to ratify the Khmeimim base agreement following the Duma’s approval, Pankov refrained from deliberating about possible future bases in Vietnam or Cuba. Instead, he announced the government is planning to prepare for ratification an agreement to legally upgrade its naval outpost at the Syrian port of Tartus into a “base” (Militarynews.ru, October 10). Since 1971, Moscow has maintained a supply-and-maintenance outpost in Tartus with several warehouses, barracks and two floating piers; a Black Sea Fleet maintenance ship with a crew is stationed in Tartus for about six months and then returns to Sevastopol (Crimea) to be replaced by a similar ship. Tartus is a relatively shallow port, so only destroyer-size ships may reach its floating piers. Recently the Russian navy has been renovating Tartus: reinforcing its piers, deepening the harbor to accommodate bigger ships and increasing its garrison. During the Cold War, the Soviet navy maintained the 5th operational squadron in the Mediterranean to counter the US 6th Fleet. In June 2013, apparently in anticipation of a possible intervention in the Syrian civil war, Moscow has recreated a permanent operational force in the Mediterranean, mostly deployed close to the Syrian cost. Former chief of the General Staff Army-General (ret.) Yury Baluyevsky says that to reinstate itself as a world power, Russia must have foreign bases and “by all means continue to keep troops in Khmeimim and Tartus to support al-Assad” (Militarynews.ru, October 10).
In early October, Russia deployed its newest army mobile S-300V4 anti-aircraft missile system to Tartus, reportedly to defend Syria against possible US air and missile attacks—in addition to the Russian S-400 missiles that were deployed at Khmeimim last year (see EDM, October 6). The US and to some extent Israel have expressed concern. The S-400 and the S-300V4, which for export purposes will be named Antey-4000, both reportedly have a range of some 400 km, seemingly allowing them to cover all of Syria (Militarynews.ru, October 6). But according to former air defense staff office Colonel (ret.) Mikhail Khodoryonok, both the S-400 and S-300V4 were deployed in Syria at minimal possible strength—one “division” each (half a regiment), including some launchers with radars and computerized command facilities. According to Khodoryonok, the S-400 and S-300V4 can possibly hit a target at 400 km if it is flying at 12 km or higher and relatively slow—for instance an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) jet or a Global Hawk radar drone. Low-flying cruise missiles in rugged terrain may be detected at a distance of just over 20 km and intercepted at 12 km. The S-400 is capable of defending the Russian base at Khmeimim; the S-300V4 can defend Tartus, but not much further out. According to Khodoryonok, the S-300V4 deployment is meant to deter the US, but not to engage. The latter would require the deployment of several brigades of S-400s and S-300V4s, which Russia currently lacks sufficient numbers of in its reserves (Gazeta.ru, October 12). Moscow seems to have taken on more imperialistic commitments than it can stomach.