Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 192

In a move that appeared to link long-standing Kremlin concerns regarding the declining strength of Russia’s armed forces with a parallel, more pragmatic assessment of the country’s geopolitical possibilities, President Vladimir Putin announced yesterday that Russian troops would soon be vacating two of Russia’s most important Soviet-era military bases: the Lourdes listening post in Cuba and the Cam Ranh Bay naval base in Vietnam. The announcement came after what some sources suggested was a stormy meeting between the Russian president and top military leaders, one in which Putin placed the base closings within the broader context of better using scarce state funding in order to reform and rebuild the Russian army. Putin’s remarks also suggested that a currently ongoing military reform program will be amended and intensified, and that the Kremlin intends to use the rapidly evolving international security environment–including the U.S.-led war against terrorism–to justify moves in this area that may be unpopular with senior military commanders. It may be no coincidence that Putin chose to announce the base closings and to address the military reform issue anew yesterday, on the eve of his departure for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and a high-profile meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Shanghai.

But if the timing of yesterday’s base closing announcement caught some by surprise, its substance probably did not. During Putin’s visit to Havana last December, Russian and Cuban leaders appeared to fail in efforts aimed at reaching an agreement that would ensure the facility’s future. Indeed, while Putin did visit the secret facility and delivered a brief pep talk to hundreds of the 1,500 inhabitants of the Russian-operated base, he offered only the vaguest assurances as to the base’s future. The fact that the Russian and Cuban delegations struggled also to reach agreements on other issues central to their bilateral relations–including in particular repayment of Cuba’s debt to Russia and the future of the controversial Cuban nuclear power plant at Juragua–probably augured poorly for the Lourdes facility. Built in 1964, the Lourdes post has been described as Russian Military Intelligence’s (GRU) “greatest single overseas asset,” while Izvestia claimed in 1998 that it provided 60-70 percent of all Russian electronic intelligence data on the United States. For those reasons, and amid reports last year that the Russians has been busy modernizing the facility, the U.S. Congress voted in the spring of 2000 to restrict financial aid to Russia unless it closed Lourdes. In fact, however, Lourdes’ fate appears to have been determined in large part by financial concerns. The closure probably comes because of Cuba’s unwillingness to significantly lower the US$200 million rent it was charging Russia annually for the facility (see the Monitor, May 9, December 18, 2000; Miami Herald, March 4, 1999).

Financial considerations appear to have played a major role in the Kremlin’s decision to abandon the Cam Ranh Bay naval base as well. The inability of Russian and Vietnamese negotiators to reach agreement on an annual rental fee for use of the facility led Putin to side-step the issue during the course of an otherwise successful and friendly visit to Vietnam this past spring. Russia had been occupying the base rent-free since 1979 on the basis of a Soviet-Vietnamese agreement that expires in 2004, but reports earlier this year suggested Hanoi was demanding US$200 million annually in rent after that date. (The Vietnamese figure, ironically enough, was said to be based on the amount that Russia was paying to Cuba for use of the Lourdes facility.) Putin’s announcement yesterday appears to formalize a decision that was reported this past June by government sources in Hanoi–namely, that Russia had decided not to renew its lease on the base once it expires in 2004. Although Cam Ranh Bay had once served as a major Soviet listening post and naval station, its use by the Russian navy in particular is reported to have dwindled since the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The decision to abandon the base would nevertheless appear to be a setback for the Russian naval command, which has exhibited signs over the past few years of having grand hopes of resuscitating itself as a blue water navy (see the Monitor, March 5, June 14).

If reports of yesterday’s meeting between Putin and his generals in Moscow are to be believed, then the Russian president used the argument that the armed forces could no longer afford the Lourdes and Cam Ranh Bay facilities and that the military would benefit more by spending money allocated for the facilities elsewhere. Russian General Staff Chief Anatoly Kvashnin, now the military’s highest ranking uniformed officer, took up Putin’s refrain (publicly at least), telling reporters that the US$200 million saved from the closure of Lourdes would “solve many of our problems.” The amount, he was quoted as saying, would pay for twenty new surveillance satellites and dozens of radio locational systems, while the savings from Cam Ranh “would pay for a brand new nuclear-powered submarine.”

To help make what was probably an unpalatable decision for the generals a little easier to swallow, Putin did reportedly commit yesterday to an increase in defense spending that would include nearly US$1 billion in funding for the purchase of new military hardware. Whether that will satisfy a military leadership already skeptical of Putin’s current rapprochement with Washington and his decision to join the U.S.-led antiterror drive remains to be seen. But for the time being, at least, the base closings and Putin’s seeming willingness to take on the Top Brass anew suggest the emergence of a tough new pragmatism on the Kremlin’s part. Some Russian commentators also argued yesterday that the base closings–and Moscow’s planned abandonment of the Lourdes facility in particular–has been timed to please Washington and that it constitutes a further indication of the Kremlin’s determination to draw closer to the United States and the West (DPA, Reuters, AP, BBC, Interfax,,, October 17).