“Russia Seeks Naval Presence in Cuba, Vietnam”

The Russian navy may desire a replacement of their Syrian base but they’re surveying the wrong locations.

The American military base at Cam Ranh Bay during the Vietnam War, 1966
The American military base at Cam Ranh Bay during the Vietnam War, 1966

Russia hopes to establish another naval base abroad and is eying Cuba, the Seychelles and Vietnam as possible locations, the country’s naval chief was quoted as saying on Friday.

Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov, the commander-in-chief of the Russian navy, told the RIA Novosti news agency, “It’s true that we are continuing work on providing the navy with basing outside the Russian Federation.”

Russia’s only foreign maritime base at present is situated in Tartus, Syria in the Eastern Mediterranean. Although the facility is limited in scope, preserving it is seen as a reason for Russia to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad despite international condemnation of the brutal crackdown of dissent that he has orchestrated in Syria for the last seventeen months.

Russia vacated the Cam Ranh naval base in Vietnam in 2002 during Vladimir Putin’s first term as president because the country could no longer afford to pay the rent. Reoccupying it may spark some undue concern — in Beijing.

Moscow’s acquisition of basing rights in Cam Ranh and Da Nang in the 1970s, while the United States were exploiting the Sino-Soviet split by engaging China, heightened Chinese apprehension of what was perceived as a Russsian attempt to encircle it from the sea. China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam was meant to demonstrate to the Vietnamese that they could not depend on the Soviets and thereby forestalling an alliance between them.

Vietnam, embroiled in maritime border disputes with China in the South China Sea, appears to have little desire to revisit this tumultuous history. President Trương Tấn Sang, who was in Russia to meet Putin on Friday, insisted that his government had “no intention of cooperating with any country with the aim of military use of the port of Cam Ranh.”

American defense secretary Leon Panetta did visit Cam Ranh Bay earlier this month where he announced that up to 60 percent of the United States’ warships would soon be deployed to the Pacific. The United States also held military exercises with Vietnam in the central part of the country near Da Nang at the end of April of this year. Vietnam welcomes the American naval presence in Southeast Asia to balance against China’s rise.

Sang did say that a maintenance and service facility at Cam Ranh would be open to ships from all nations and that, in the interest of furthering a “strategic partnership” with Moscow, Vietnam “will provide Russia with advantages.”

Chirkov said that Russia was “working out the issue of creating sites for material and technical support on the territory of Cuba, the Seychelles and Vietnam” which suggests that facilities there could be less extensive than full-scale naval bases.

A permanent facility on Cuba seems highly unlikely in any event given the island’s proximity to the United States. Ironically, this October will be the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. American-Russian relations have improved since but probably not up to the point that the United States will tolerate the deployment of Russian warships to the Caribbean.

Courting the Seychelles could also prove problematic. China and India both seek a military presence there to be able to project power across the Indian Ocean. What can Russia offer the island nation that China and India can’t?

In short, Admiral Chirkov may sincerely be looking for a replacement of Tartus in case the Assad regime falls but the locations he says to be considering are unlikely to ever host a Russian military base.

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