Currently, Moscow has 21 military bases abroad, but only a handful are beyond the borders of the former Soviet space and none is equivalent to the size and capacity of the more than 200 bases the United States maintains around the world. But given President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations for the Russian Federation to become the world’s second superpower again, some in Moscow are now talking about opening new Russian bases abroad. As a result, a new debate has begun as to whether Russia needs or can afford new military bases on foreign soil, with advocates seeing them as a useful counter to US power, while opponents dismiss these proponents as “hotheads” who have neither calculated the costs nor the potential international reaction.
The growing debate, in turn, has been complicated by two other factors that help explain why some are now pushing for the establishment of additional bases. First, Moscow possesses only a single, aging aircraft carrier, which limits Russia’s ability to project power in a way similar to the US Navy. And second, the Kremlin’s increasing use of “private military companies” (PMC) to engage in military actions abroad challenges the prerogatives of others in the Russian security community.
The case for opening new foreign bases is represented most fully by Moscow-based military analyst Ruslan Khubiyev. He argues that “while several years ago, no one could think about establishing new Russian military facilities [abroad], now things are moving in that direction.” This policy about-turn has, in part, been a response to US actions, which themselves are the result of Russia’s growing military might. Moreover, he asserts, ever more countries are looking for some international actor to counter US power. And that combination, Khubiyev says, is “forcing the Kremlin to think about” projecting Russian power beyond its traditional limits in order to counter the alleged growing US threat in Europe (Regnum, February 23).
According to Khubiyev, Russia’s ongoing development of new weapons systems (see EDM, February 5, 7, 12, 13, 20, 26) is significant but clearly not sufficient to counter all US plans and to take advantage of the increasingly unstable situation in many places around the world. The Moscow analyst adds, “[H]appily, given world events, many ‘Soviet’ bases could appear again.” Indeed, he says, they could appear “all at once” on three continents. Khubiyev offers a list of 14 countries where he sees the possibility of opening a Russian base: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Myanmar, Vietnam, Mexico, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, the Seychelles Islands and Egypt.
This may seem unthinkable to many, he continues, but “the situation in the world today is such that an ever-growing number of countries are beginning to recognize the true role of Moscow in the preservation of the global balance.” And the coming together of these countries’ interests and Russia’s is how “a new geopolitical alternative” can be created.
Yet, not everyone in Moscow is similarly impressed. The clearest advocate of the opposing view comes from Ravil Mustafin, another military analyst from the Russian capital. Mustafin suggests that people like Khubiyev are “hotheads” who have not engaged in a thorough calculation of how much such bases would cost nor stopped to think through how both the host countries (including their populations) and the West may respond. If one takes the time to do so, Mustafin argues, one is forced to conclude that opening new bases now is something Moscow cannot afford—either financially or politically (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 13).
“From time to time, the opinion of certain Russian hotheads and supporters of simple solutions appear in unison,” calling for the establishment of bases, Mustafin says. Such people believe that establishing a base is a solution to all problems, when in fact it will create more than they imagine. This is not only due to the inevitable drain on scarce resources but also because it will change the attitudes of local people and local governments as well as Western perceptions in ways Moscow may not anticipate (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 13).
Discussions about opening a military base in Libya and elsewhere took off after Moscow established long-term naval and air force facilities in Syria. But Syria is a bad model. There, Russian forces were invited by President Bashar al-Assad; someone hated by many people but nonetheless generally recognized as the country’s sole legitimate ruler. In contrast, Mustafin points out, “In Libya, there is no central government and no unified state.” Consequently, establishing a base would make Russia party to one of the dissenting factions rather than the government and would almost certainly lead followers of other factions to view the base as threatening rather than a symbol of peace. In Mustafin’s own words, “As soon as Russia gets a military base from one of the groups and inserts its forces, it will immediately encounter sharp hostility from other Libyans. At that point, friendship will immediately end, and we will risk a repetition of Afghanistan if not something even worse.” And that does not even include the high financial costs and the almost certain negative response from the West—one that Russia would find difficult to counter (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 13).
That might seem to be the end of such discussions and likely would be were it not for two factors. On the one hand, Moscow currently has only one aircraft carrier and will not build another until sometime in the next decade at the earliest. Foreign bases could be set up more quickly and are thus a tempting substitute for proponents of a more global Russian reach. And on the other hand, many in the defense ministry would like to take control of various situations around the world—such as in the Central African Republic—where, they believe, Putin’s PMCs have too free a reign. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s talks with leaders of that country last autumn clearly seem to point in that direction (Pnp.ru, October 22, 2018).
In the end, this debate is likely to go on, with many pushing the Kremlin to move forward on procuring new bases beyond Russia’s borders. But barring any fundamental changes, financial stringencies and the arguments of foreign specialists are likely to win the day, at least for the time being.