A senior Russian defense official has announced that Moscow is looking to build military bases throughout different countries in Asia and the Western Hemisphere.
According to RIA Novosti, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia is looking to build military bases in Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Seychelles, Singapore and several other countries.
“The talks are under way, and we are close to signing the relevant documents,” Shoigu said, according to RIA Novosti. The newspaper noted that “Moscow currently has only one naval base outside the former Soviet Union – in Tartus, Syria, but the fate of this naval facility is uncertain because of the ongoing civil war in that country.”
The comments are probably intended in part to shore up domestic support for Vladimir Putin among Russian nationalists who are likely reassessing his leadership abilities in light of the events in the Ukraine in past weeks.
However, the timing and substance of the comments also suggest that Russia is trying to antagonize the United States because of the collapse of the Russian-backed Ukrainian government last week.
The bases, as noted above, are largely focused in Asia and the Western Hemisphere. Asia is the region that the U.S. has identified as the most important one for its national security in the decades ahead. Moscow is likely to trying to remind Washington that it has some ability to frustrate U.S. objectives in that theatre should Washington continue to press its claims in countries Russia views as vital to its security.
The parallel to Ukraine is even more apparent with regards to the Latin American countries, particularly Cuba which is just 90 miles from the United States. Much like Ukraine itself, Cuba and Nicaragua also immediately harken back to the Cold War era as both served as battleground states between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, or at least were perceived as such by leaders in Washington. Russia’s message to the United States couldn’t be clearer: “if you start meddling in our neighborhood, we’ll start meddling in your neighborhood.”
Still the threat is largely hollow, as the RIA Novosti article subtly eludes too. The article begins by reporting that “Russia is planning to expand its permanent military presence outside its borders by placing military bases in a number of foreign countries.” However, later it notes in passing: “The minister added that the negotiations cover not only military bases but also visits to ports in such countries on favorable conditions as well as the opening of refueling sites for Russian strategic bombers on patrol.”
This is Russian diplomatic spin at its best. The way the sentence is phrased leaves readers with the impression that along with building new military bases in all these countries, Russia is also gaining access to certain additional ports to refuel and repair some of its vessels and aircraft. In reality, in many of the countries Shoigu mentioned Russia is likely only gaining some greater access rights to make port calls, refuel, and possibly even make repairs to its military equipment. It is almost certainly not building actual Russian military bases in most of these countries. For example, Russia will likely be once again granted access to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay port, but will not command the port exclusively as it once did. Indeed, the U.S. may very well also re-gain some access to the port. In addition, Russia has announced its hope of gaining greater access to naval ports in many of these places before, so this is less of an announcement than a reiteration in light of events in Ukraine.
In any case, Russia is living on borrowed time as its economy remains almost entirely dependent on revenue for oil and natural gas exports, which is likely to drop off significantly in the years ahead as a result of lower demand growth from the emerging markets and new sources of supplies in places like North America. Thus, while Russian state-run newspapers carry daily reports on all the future vessels, aircraft and missiles the country is fielding as part of Putin’s military modernization, most of these aren’t likely to see the light of day.