Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 90

In yet another symbol of Russia’s post-Cold War fall from its former great power status, Russian and Vietnamese officials on May 2 lowered the Russian flag for the last time over the Cam Ranh Bay naval base in southern Vietnam. The May 2 ceremony, which was attended by Vietnamese Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Van Rinh, Russian Ambassador Andrei A. Tatrinov and Rear Admiral Aleksandr Ivliev, brought to a quiet close a chapter in Russian and Vietnamese history that began in 1979. The Soviet Union and then Russia had occupied the Cam Ranh Bay facility rent-free since that time, but the Russian political leadership decided last year to withdraw from Vietnam two years before Moscow’s twenty-five year lease of the base was scheduled to expire.

The reasons for Russia’s early departure appear to have been primarily financial. Reports have suggested that Vietnam informed Moscow of its intention to ask for some US$200 million in annual rent for the base once the existing lease expired in 2004. That was apparently more than the cash-strapped Russian government, which was having trouble even paying maintenance costs at the facility, was prepared to lay out. The Russian navy’s use of the base, moreover, had fallen sharply in recent years. While Cam Ranh Bay had been the Soviet Union’s largest overseas naval base during the Cold War, it was being used as little more than a signals intelligence station by the time the decision was made to withdraw. According to recent reports, portions of the base had already been given back over to the Vietnamese for their own use, while other sections had fallen into disuse. Only a few dozen Russian military personnel continued to work at the facility.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision late last year to abandon both Cam Ranh Bay and a Russian-controlled listening post at Lourdes, Cuba was not particularly popular with the Russian military leadership, however. Putin attributed the twin moves to financial constraints, saying that the withdrawals would free up funds for the reform and reequipping of Russia’s armed forces. But many consider the withdrawals also to have been part of Putin’s broader effort to embrace the West diplomatically and to line up behind Washington in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Some in the Russian military have been less than enthusiastic about the Kremlin’s pro-Western policies, and Russian media have likewise contained suggestions of unhappiness within this same group over what they consider to be an ill-conceived and shortsighted handover of important strategic assets.

Meanwhile, some in Russia have expressed concerns over the possibility that the Cam Ranh Bay facility, which is considered one of Asia’s finest ports, might be turned over by Vietnam to the U.S. (or Chinese) military in the wake of the Russian navy’s departure. Those concerns were probably stoked when the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Admiral Dennis Blair, said during a visit to Vietnam in February that the United States might be interested in using Cam Ranh Bay for humanitarian missions and port calls following Russia’s departure.

Vietnamese government officials, however, have indicated that they intend to transform Cam Ranh Bay into a civilian facility–possibly an airport–once they have reclaimed the base. In comments to the press yesterday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko appeared to praise that decision. There is reportedly still some disagreement in Hanoi as to exactly what it will do with the Cam Ranh Bay facility, however, so that issue may yet resurface once again. Russia has nonetheless gone to some lengths in recent months to underscore its desire to strengthen trade relations and broaden bilateral ties with Vietnam, so that as galling as it might be to see an American naval presence return to Cam Ranh Bay, the issue seems unlikely to adversely affect broader Russian-Vietnamese ties (AP, May 2-3, 6; Reuters, May 3; Interfax, May 2, 7; Ekho Moskvy, May 4;, May 5; DPA, May 6; Asia Times, March 29).