Russian Military Bases in Cuba and Vietnam: A Real Threat?

October 18, 2016

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question on the latest developments in Russia and Eurasia. 

After Russia’s recent announcements that it plans to keep troops in Syria indefinitely and is considering reopening its bases in Cuba and Vietnam, we asked experts what this expanded military presence means for the West—and whether military bases can even be considered an asset in the sophisticated military climate of the 21st century. 

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Pavel K. Baev, Research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) 

baevIn the turbulent political autumn of 2016, when Russia is rushing to deliver winter supplies to the newly-rebuilt bases in the Arctic, and China adds more facilities to the artificial islands in the South China Sea, and Sweden returns a garrison to the abandoned base at Gotland, there is hardly any need in arguing the relevance of military bases in the twenty-first century.

Nowhere is this new momentum more obvious than in the Middle East, where Russia is busy upgrading its positions at Latakia and Tartus, while the United States goes an extra mile in order to secure the continuing access to the Incirlick airbase in Turkey, and Turkey itself insists – against protestations from the Iraqi government – on deploying artillery and special forces at the Bashiqa base in Northern Iraq. It is clear that the rationale for base-building often goes beyond the desire to assert ownership over a particular contested or vulnerable piece of sovereign territory.

The rationale for base-building often goes beyond the desire to assert ownership over a particular territory.

Great powers saw a need in access to bases in the Middle East for most of the twentieth century, and with the wave of wars at the beginning of this century, this need was reconfirmed. What is of particular interest presently is the further expansion of this need in the situation of confrontation between Russia and the West.

Today, air power and special forces are Washington and Moscow’s main military instruments of intervention in the Middle East. Accordingly, the U.S.-led coalition and Russia are looking for bases that facilitate the use of these instruments. The deployment of special forces is usually clandestine (and deniable), so the only feature that reveals the existence of activity is the training of local forces.

Air force bases, to the contrary, are high-profile and usually involve special legal arrangements ensuring a significant degree of extra-territoriality vis-à-vis the host state. Typically, they signify a mature security partnership between states, and for that matter, the embarrassing fiasco with Russia’s access to the Iranian Hamedan airbase was caused by the imperative for Tehran to establish the absence of such partnership.  

As Russian intervention in Syria evolved from an endeavor aimed at compelling the United States to engage in military cooperation in the war against ISIS and al-Qaeda into an enterprise directly challenging the U.S.-led coalition, the issue of ensuring security, and in particular air defense of its bases, has gained the top priority.

Moscow has sought to turn the vulnerability of its assets into a tactical advantage. The deployment of the S-400 and S-300 surface-to-air missile systems at Latakia and Tartus effectively secured control over the airspace of western Syria. The protective “bubble” has become an instrument of denial for U.S. air power.

One problem with this proactive use of bases is that the capability for such denial might be exposed as inadequate by a series of long-distance and high-precision U.S. strikes on Syrian military assets. Another problem is the physical security of over-loaded, but small bases against terrorist attacks, because Russia is not able to build sufficient layers of protection.

Moscow tries to use its readiness to accept high risks as a political advantage against its risk-averse Western adversaries, but it is by no means clear that it has stomach to absorb very probable blows. Bases are material manifestations of the commitment to rely on military means to achieve often ambiguous political ends, but they are also magnets for trouble, and Russia may yet discover that its experiment in power projection amounts to entrapment.      

Dario Citati, Director, Eurasia Research Program, Institute of Advanced Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences (IsAG), Rome

dario-citatiRussia’s statement regarding reopening military bases in Cuba and Vietnam can be understood from three points of view: the likelihood and the feasibility of the proposal itself; the significance of that declaration in the wider context of Russian foreign policy; the appropriate reaction by the West.

Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry immediately said Hanoi will not allow other countries to set up military bases in Vietnam. Cuba has not released any official statement, but after the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Washington it is hard to imagine a military rapprochement with Moscow.

Russia wants to demonstrate that its global view isn’t limited to the post-Soviet space.

In the context of Russian foreign policy, such a declaration is an example of psychological warfare. Moscow wants to demonstrate that its global view is not limited to the post-Soviet space.

For the West, diplomacy is the most reasonable path to prevent unchecked Russian military expansion. But to best achieve this end, one has to acknowledge that the purported benevolence of Russian power projection is as naive as the idea of the absolutely pacific character of NATO enlargement to Russian borders.

Marta Gatti, PhD Candidate, Verona University 

@GattiMarta

MartaMoscow’s consideration of reopening Soviet-era bases in Cuba and Vietnam could be easily considered as flashpoints and symbols of the current hostility between Russia and the United States, just as their closure in the early 2000s was part of efforts to improve ties with Washington. For now, the Russian decision appears to have primarily a provocative purpose. Despite the announcement’s Cold War-feel, the move should be evaluated with pragmatism.

First, there is no clear evidence that Cuba or Vietnam would easily accept the return of  Russian military presence on their respective territories. For Havana, this decision could damage the process towards the improvement of U.S.-Cuba relations that started in 2015.

Cuba and Vietnam would be unlikely to risk their improving relations with the United States.

Concerning Cam Ranh Bay, it is necessary to remember that Vietnam is a growing U.S. security partner in the disputed South China Sea. Hanoi has also taken an increasingly important economic partner for Washington through Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations. Meanwhile, the U.S. decision to lift the lethal weapon embargo on Vietnam in May of this year has led to a partial opening of the Cam Rahn Bay base for the U.S. navy. It is unlikely that Hanoi would grant Russia more than a simplified naval access to the port.

Second, even if these countries were open to increased Russian military presence on their soil, effective bases require substantial financial investment to cover infrastructure and personnel costs. Russia’s struggling economy might be incapable of facing all the financial commitments needed to follow-through in the long run.

Alexander Graef, Research Associate, University of St. Gallen (Switzerland)

@alxgraef 

Graef_Alexander_picMilitary bases matter, but the speculation about Russia re-opening its bases in Cuba and Vietnam is largely a political smokescreen. The Russian Ministry of Defense deliberately discloses such information to convey the message that Russia is ready to practice geopolitics and defend its interests globally.

Both Cuba and Vietnam ring particular bells in Western ears. For the United States, these are places of defeat and a reminder of the former Soviet Union’s international influence. Moreover, their geographic location highlights Russian ambitions in the Western hemisphere and in South-East Asia.

From a purely military point of view, however, such plans are not particularly alarming. Russia’s radio-electronic intelligence center in Lourdes, Cuba has been closed since 2002. Even with deteriorated U.S.-Russia relations, President Putin denied information about a possible re-opening in Cuba in the summer of 2014, declaring that Russian military objectives could be realized without it. 

Today most information is received by satellites, not by land-based facilities. Though some in Russia have called for the establishment of a naval or air base in Cuba, it is unlikely that Havana, which recently has relaxed its relations with Washington, would agree to such a project. Even if Russia were both able and willing to operate such facilities, the balance of power in the Caribbean could not be turned in its favor.

Russia abandoned the former Soviet military base in Cam Ranh, Vietnam, in 2002. However, in November 2013 it signed an agreement to use the Vietnamese naval base as a service hub for its submarines, and Russian ships are now subject to a simplified procedure when entering Cam Ranh Bay. Since 2014 the aerodrome located there also provides re-fueling services for Russian planes, which the United States has actively tried to prevent.

The West’s main concern about Russia should remain in the Middle East.

Russia’s military presence has its limits. First of all, Vietnam is openly trying to balance against China in the region. A Russian military build-up might be perceived in Beijing as an unwelcome intervention. Russia cannot afford alienating China as a partner. Second, and true for Cuba as well, Russia’s current financial situation does not allow for the realization of global ambitions. In fact, the Russian military budget will arguably decrease in the next years.

For the West, expanded Russian military presence in Cuba or Vietnam is not a primary issue. Instead, the main concern should be the Middle East. Russia has clear geopolitical interests in the region. Permanent stationing of troops at the Khmeimim air base in Latakia and naval base in Tartus gives the necessary leverage for Russian forces to flexibly react to developments on the ground. As a consequence, Russia has the means to remain the dominant foreign power in Syria for the foreseeable future.

Another concern is Egypt. Russia is currently negotiating the lease of several military objects, including the former Soviet air base in Sidi Barrani. Moreover, the Ministry of Defense has announced the relocation Russian troops and materiel to Egypt for common counter-terrorist exercises. It is not clear yet what are the exact long-term aims of these policies, but Russia has a demonstrated interest in backing the current Egyptian government under General Sisi to prevent further regime changes in the region.

Michael Kofman, Research Scientist, CNA

michael_kofman_hr_0Russia’s recent announcement that it might consider reopening old Soviet bases in Cuba and Vietnam should be treated less as a serious proposition and more as a public threat. In reality, Russia has no such plans, and Vietnam’s government has already issued a response stating they do not intend to permit the return of foreign bases on their soil. 

This is simply Moscow’s way of signaling that it may become more active in areas where there was once a Soviet military presence. But the truer purpose is to escalate in the latest ‘war of words’ with the United States following the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire negotiations.  This is also a means of signaling to Russia’s domestic audience that they are able to respond to Western pressure.

Bases have immense value for countries like the United States with large alliance networks requiring protection, the need for forward power projection, and extended logistics supply lines since all combat operations take place on distant shores. Hence bases are integral to America’s military power abroad, enabling forward presence, and the capacity to respond to various contingencies around the world.  They are expensive, however, and even close allies charge for their use. 

For Russia, Cold War-era military bases make little practical or financial sense.

It makes little practical or financial sense for Russia to return to its Cold War bases since it lacks the Soviet Union’s network of client states, a vast military to support, or the technical need for such installations abroad. This is especially so given the high watermark of Russian defense spending was reached in 2015, with 3% cuts to the budget absorbed that year and up to 6% reductions expected in 2016.

Russia does need some facilities abroad to support combat operations in Syria. This is why the pier in Tartus is steadily being upgraded into a naval base. However, most of the country’s naval resupply needs can be accomplished through agreements. Moscow can replenish at other ports in the Mediterranean, including Cyprus, and refuel aircraft out of Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. 

Expensive permanent installations are unnecessary. Moreover, they provide the host nation some leverage over bilateral relations. Negotiations over lease renewal and price often become onerous, and can become the source of strained relations (note the public spat between Moscow and Tehran when Russia publicized bomber flights from Hamadan airbase). Russia remains largely a Eurasian land power, with little need for scattered military bases abroad, but for the United States the trouble is worth it; bases are an integral component of U.S. military power and political relationships with allies.

Michael Purcell, Director of Operations, Center on Global Interests

MikeBases do matter, most importantly as a way to allow a country to quickly build and sustain sufficient combat power to influence events around the globe. To paraphrase General Robert H. Barrow, amateurs think about tactics, professionals think about logistics. While an era of warfare dominated by cyber capabilities and long range precision strike may yet dawn, tragically messy and very human conflicts like those in Syria in Ukraine still require the application of significant amounts of ammunition, fuel, water, and service members. Moving men, women, and materiel across long distances is harder than ever before, as most leading edge ground equipment has grown heavier in response to the growing threat of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

Military bases could be considered the ultimate form of foreign direct investment.

Bases also matter as a mechanism to build stronger bilateral ties. In a sense they serve as the ultimate form of foreign direct investment. On a good day, foreign basing results in enhanced economic, political, and cultural ties that benefit both parties. On a bad day, this might mean an outsized foreign influence that effectively limits a state’s sovereignty.

Nonetheless, if a basing strategy isn’t founded on both a careful map study and an objective calculation of political and economic risk, it comes off as an amateur’s tactical gambit rather than a professional’s pre-positioning of combat power in anticipation of likely contingencies. Moscow’s latest announcements, at least for now, seems a bit more the former than the latter. 

Nora Vanaga, Senior Researcher, Center for Security and Strategic Research, National Defence Academy of Latvia

@nvanaga

VanagaRussia’s announcement looks like another Kremlin attempt to draw international attention to its intentions to project global military power. Soon after the statement, Vietnamese officials emphasized neutrality as a corner stone of country’s foreign policy and denied any possibility that Cam Ranh Bay could be given for any privileged Russian use. Most probably Cuba’s answer will be in the same line, considering the recent rapprochement in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Bases can be a tool to undermine the opponent’s sway.

So what motivates the Kremlin’s proposed action on bases? First, consider the geopolitical incentives. In order to secure its sphere of influence, Russia has kept or rebuilt military bases in neighboring countries like Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But bases can also serve as a tool to undermine an opponent’s sway. The latter motivation is certainly at play in the cases of Cuba and Vietnam, where the United States has or is seeking to increase its security presence.

The other set of reasons are more pragmatic. Foreign bases are built to provide boots on the ground and visible military presence. In the case of Russia, which only possesses one aircraft carrier, installations beyond the post-Soviet space are an indelible logistics asset. This is clear in Syria, where a land base serves as Russia’s primary launching point for its air campaign. The same characteristics would apply for Cam Ranh Bay, which the Russians could use as a hub for both aircraft and submarines.


The Center on Global Interests provides an open platform for discussion. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s).