By Intelligence Operative Holmes
On Thursday, July 26, news outlets reported that Russia announced intentions to build military bases in Vietnam, the Seychelles, and Cuba. The source of the news was an interview given by Russian Vice Admiral Victor Chirkov to the Russian IRA Novosti news network.
Map courtesy of the CIA
The Russian Defense Ministry subsequently denied that Chirkov had ever discussed anything about foreign bases and pointed out that the Russian Navy would not be in charge of any foreign base agreements that Russia would make with any foreign nation.
Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the denial at a press conference in Moscow. Given that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has so loudly voiced his intentions of returning Russia to its former military might, presumably with equipment that works this time, most foreign observers were not surprised by IRA Novosti’s report.
The idea of bases in the Seychelles, Vietnam, and Cuba is hardly new. Russia previously maintained bases in these locations until financial constraints forced them to close after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When questioned about any military base deals with Russia, Vietnam’s president Truong Tan Sang said that Vietnam has no intention of allowing foreign bases in his country. He said Vietnam would make the port of Cam Ranh available to all countries, but that Vietnam would help Russia by allowing for some facilities to be built to aid military cooperation between Vietnam and Russia.
Is that clear to everyone? No Russian bases in Vietnam ever, just some military facilities for Russian ships to use. The distinction is important, I’m sure . . . to someone . . . somewhere.
The desire for a base in Vietnam is understandable these days. Besides having had a base there previously and wanting closer relations with Vietnam, Russia’s inability to affect China’s current attempt to expand its borders across the South Pacific has to be terribly frustrating to a man like Putin. Vietnam is genuinely concerned about China’s new military aggression and wouldn’t mind a little help from its old communist brothers from up north, even if they are all stinking capitalist brothers now.
As for the Seychelles, some folks might wonder why anyone other than Seychelles sailors would want a port there. The answer is that a port in the Seychelles would give Russia a base of operations for refueling, resupply, and repairs when they operate ships in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean matters because that’s where the Suez canal and the Arabian Sea lead to, and that means tons of oil are shipped through the Indian Ocean to many destinations, including China.
The case of a Russian base reopening in Cuba is somewhat more irksome for the USA. Cuba is 90 miles from Florida. Part of the resolution to the 1962 “Cuban Missile Crisis” was that the Soviet Union agreed to never again bring nuclear weapons to Cuba. If Russian capital ships port in Cuba, then there will be Russian nuclear weapons in Cuba. If asked about it, Putin might say that those ships have no nuclear weapons (which no one would believe) and that he is not bound by agreements made by the old USSR.
So far, Putin has said neither of those things and isn’t directly responding to the issue. He is still busy with the question, “What fleet would we send to those new bases?”
At present, the Russian Navy is still suffering from a lack of money and is unable to put a credible deep sea fleet in the water. Putin claims that will change, and he has been increasing the budgets of all of the Russian military branches, including the navy. Even with Putin’s stifling influence on the Russian economy and its ongoing “brain drain” of many of Russia’s brightest young people, as long as oil and gas prices remain high, Russia will continue to make huge profits from energy sales to European nations.
So what shall we guess at as Putin’s intentions? Putin can’t be happy about events in Syria. Once his intelligence service informed him that the Assad regime would likely collapse, he had to reverse his stance. After loudly proclaiming Russian support for Assad (and for the continued use of the Russian fleet’s one foreign base beyond the Ukraine), Putin had to pretend to suddenly claim the moral high ground and hedge his bets against Syria.
Being Putin can’t be easy. Whenever he thinks about it, he can’t help but be aware that no reasonable Russian would put up with having him in charge unless they absolutely had to do so. He knows that his fellow corporate giants in Russia would love an opportunity to replace him with someone less expensive and less powerful. Putin can only get so much mileage out of the “daring Putin” staged photo shoots that portray him as a macho tough guy. Always in the market for any help he can get, Putin is becoming more willing to play the imaginary Cold War card.
There’s nothing like a national emergency to get people to tolerate a reduction in freedom and a lousy economy. (We’ll write about the D.H.S. some other day). Well okay, an efficient and obedient police state apparatus helps as well, but Putin’s thugs aren’t quite back up to North Korean or Cuban standards yet, and he can’t resist working on his mythology a bit in the mean time.
So while Putin has no urgent military need for a naval base on the US doorstep, and though he can hardly afford to waste cash on one, the chance to remain in the international limelight and to stir up some nationalistic sentiment in Russia is just too hard to pass up. So how do bright young Russians feel about all this? I can’t speak for them. The next time you see one moving into Western Europe, ask him.
In the short term, none of Russia’s imperialist dreams mean much to us in the West. How much it means to us in the future will depend on how well Putin can run the Russian economy, and how much of a Russian Navy he can build and put to sea.
‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.
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