Power Play: Russia searches for bases in the Pacific

The Russian Pacific Fleet needs overseas military bases in order to become a true blue water force – and expand Moscow’s global influence.
Pacific Fleet
Combat ships of the Pacific Fleet near a cable-stayed bridge in Vladivostok. Source: Vitaliy Ankov/RIA Novosti

The United States’ Pivot to Asia has led to a massive naval build-up in Russia’s backyard. Under a policy outlined by the U.S. Defense Department, as much as 60 per cent of the U.S. Navy fleet will be deployed to the Pacific by 2020. Currently, the U.S. has approximately 368,000 military personnel scattered at a number of key bases in the region.

In contrast to the shrill accusations of an American encirclement coming from China, the Russians have been remarkably nonchalant about the Pivot. There is an ongoing Russian naval expansion in the backdrop of the new American threat, but there is no sense of panic at the Pacific Fleet’s HQ in Vladivostok.

The reason for the Russian Navy’s apparent calm is that this is Russia’s backyard. While the U.S. Navy is forward deployed – and therefore needs a number of bases to replenish and rest – Russia has easy access to the Pacific from home bases.

Russia is also unique in having a maritime aviation arm, comprising Tu-95M Backfire bombers that can project power thousands of miles into the Pacific. This means, any aggressive forward deployment by the U.S. Navy can be tackled well before these ships pose a threat to the Pacific Fleet or the Russian mainland.

Russia also knows that U.S. naval strike groups need to be replenished at regular intervals for them to be able to stay in the fight. These fleets would be orphaned and vulnerable if their supporting bases are destroyed by land attack missiles or a nuclear strike.

Bases count

Still, overseas bases are useful not only because they provide a ringside seat of the action, but they also reflect Moscow’s growing ambition to reassert itself on the world stage.

Placing its military assets in strategically important regions of the world will make them work more effective toward the goal of expanding Russia’s global influence.

At the same time, having multiple ports to call on after weeks of being on duty can do wonders for crew morale.

The Russian military is therefore scanning the Asia-Pacific and beyond in the hope of snagging bases. Here are Moscow’s options:

Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam

One of the most secure naval bases in the world, it had a massive Russian presence during the Cold War before the Pacific Fleet withdrew in 2002. Russia currently has an agreement with Vietnam to allow Russian ships to enter Cam Ranh Bay under a simplified procedure, and the Russian Air Force has been using an airfield in Vietnam since 2014.

But Moscow is hoping for preferential treatment. In October 2016, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said Russia was “re-rethinking the decisions that were made earlier.”

He added: “The global situation is not static, it is in flux. You see that the last two years have made significant changes to international affairs and security. Therefore, it’s quite natural that all countries assess these changes in line with their national interests and take certain steps in the way they consider appropriate.”

The problem for Moscow is that while Hanoi allows port calls by foreign warships, it bars any permanent presence by foreign military forces.

“Vietnam's consistent policy is not to engage a military ally or engage with any country to oppose a third country,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh. “We will also not allow any other countries to set up a military base in Vietnam.”

Still, Vietnam remains close to Russia for the valuable help rendered during the Vietnam War. Moscow is helping Vietnam upgrade facilities at Cam Ranh Bay, including a submarine training center. If the South China Sea boils over, Moscow has a shot at a base.

Singapore

This city state is one of the most pragmatic nations in the world. Singapore has no military alliances with the U.S. – or with anyone else – but it has a highly disciplined armed force that conducts intense military exercises with the Americans.

In 1992, when the Philippines shut down two of the largest American bases in the region, which were located in the country, the U.S. in the same year entered into an agreement with Singapore to use the naval base on its territory.

But as Pankov said, the world is ever changing. Today, the Singapore leadership is warming up to Moscow. According to Prime Minister Lee Hsien, Russia has an important role to play in the region, including in Northeast Asia, where Russia can be involved in the issue of denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and in Southeast Asia, where ASEAN has welcomed Russia as a dialogue partner.

"My father, (founding) Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, believed that Russia would play a major role in world affairs," Lee says. "So when I was a teenager, he encouraged me to study Russian, which I did. And in 1970, he made his first visit to Russia ... Even after he retired as Prime Minister, he kept the links up. I am very happy to build on this foundation.”

However, unlike Rodrigo Duterte, the mercurial President of the Philippines, the Singaporeans are an extremely conservative lot. It will be tough sailing for the Russian diplomatic corps in the years ahead. While a Russian base seems overly ambitious, an agreement on a simplified procedure of making port calls as well as the possibility of refuelling long-range aircraft could be a good start.

Cuba

This tiny South American nation is only 90 miles from Florida. At one time, it had a massive Russian presence, especially at Lourdes where a listening base used to suck quantities of intelligence from the U.S. However, it all ended during the 1990s, following the end of the Soviet Union.

Russia is unlikely to ramp up military activity on the island nation because of its close proximity to the U.S. Although the Americans have been conducting military exercises in the Baltic nations and Ukraine, Moscow has avoided similar drills in Cuba as it continues to stick to the 1962 treaty that bars Moscow stationing offensive weapons on the island.

In 2012, a senior military official in Moscow said Russia was in talks to set up resupply bases in Cuba after undertaking its biggest military overhaul since the Soviet era. More recently, Cuban President Raul Castro and Russian President Vladimir Putin have improved military diplomacy. In 2014, an armed Russian intelligence-gathering military vessel arrived in Havana the same day Shoigu made the announcement of his country’s increased presence in Latin America.

The Viktor Leonov CCB-175, an armed intelligence-gathering vessel built for the Soviet navy in the late 1980s, docked in Havana but at a cruise ship terminal. It was clearly aimed to send a signal to the U.S. that Russia could ramp up its presence in America’s backyard any time it chose.

The captain of the ship dismissed the theory that Russia was flexing its muscles, but he added, "Of course it monitors military and sometimes non-military electronic activities ... in the region, almost exclusively American."

Venezuela

In 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent a special message to his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chavez, ratifying his contentment with the “deep strategic alliance” between Caracas and Moscow. Russian Tupolev Blackjack strategic bombers flew non-stop from Saratov to the South American nation, setting off panic bells in the Pentagon.

When the Russian jets landed at Libertador air base, President Chavez personally welcomed them, saying: “The Yankee hegemony is finished.”

A base in the strategically located country would provide the Russian Navy a vantage location to conduct patrols off the U.S. coastline. Venezuela is at a perfect distance from the American mainland – neither too far nor to close. But there are two factors at play here that could torpedo any base plans.

One, Venezuela’s constitution forbids allow a foreign military installation in the country. This means Russia would have to remain content with more modest options such as port calls or refuelling rights for its strategic bombers.

Secondly, political uncertainty in the country could lead to a change in its political leadership, which could have implications for Russia. With Chavez long dead, his party is under siege from its opponents and regime change could take the country towards chaos and into the arms of the U.S.

However, even if a reprise of Brazil happens and a pro-American government comes to rule in Caracas, Moscow will remain a key player because almost all of Venezuela's military equipment, with the exception of its transport aircraft and navy ships, is Russian-made.

Nicaragua

Scarred by its association with the U.S., Nicaragua's constitution does not allow another country to set up bases.

However, the country allows Russian military formations, ships and aircraft to visit the country as part of a six-month training program.

In 2013, two Tupolev Blackjack bombers carried out combat training patrols between Venezuela and Nicaragua, indicating that the easy going Nicaraguans aren’t unduly concerned about American ire. If Russia wants to come visiting, Managua will play ball.

Sydney, Australia

The Australians have been loyal American allies since 1951 when the U.S. Australia and New Zealand formed a military alliance named ANZUS.

Australia currently hosts one of the biggest American bases in the region in Darwin, where thousands of American Marines are stationed. The base is clearly aimed at checking the rise of Chinese naval power.

Unlike other American allies such as the Philippines, Japan and South Korea, whose ties to Russia are improving and strengthening constantly, the Australians seem to be possessed by some sort of bizarre machismo when it comes to Russia.

It was best illustrated by former Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s threat to “shirtfront” Putin at the G-20 summit in Australia in 2014.

Shirtfronting a black belt in judo would probably have caused serious bodily harm, but jokes aside, Abbot clearly went too far. Forget a base, just a Russian fleet sailing up Sydney harbour would bring both nations a bit closer.

Endgame

Russia’s plans to expand its defense – and long-range strike – capabilities in the in the Asia-Pacific Region is taking shape in the backdrop of several important changes in the existing power structure such as the rise of China and entry of Japan as a major military power.

While regional players and powers are warming up to Moscow, they will be keen not to upset long time hegemon Washington.

The quantum of Russian trade with the region, weapons exports, as well as oil and gas agreements will also be key factors that will decide the fate of future Russian bases.

Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and foreign affairs analyst, with a special interest in defence and military history. He is on the advisory board of Modern Diplomacy, a Europe-based foreign affairs portal. He tweets at @byrakeshsimha. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RBTH.

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