While re-opening these new military bases may not have the strategic value they once did, they do possess a lot of symbolic value for Russia’s military.
Cuba's President Raul Castro, center, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin review troops during a welcoming ceremony at Revolution Palace in Havana, Cuba, July 11, 2014. Photo: AP
The news that Russia is going to re-open its military bases in Cuba (Lourdes) and Vietnam (Cam Ranh) came as a big surprise for the world. Indeed, what is behind these plans and will they really be implemented?
It is not the first time that the Russian authorities have raised the question about re-opening the Lourdes base. In summer 2014, the Russian defense minister was reported to have announced that Russia would resume the work of its old bases and create new ones throughout the world — from Singapore to Argentina. However, during his 2014 visit to Latin America, Russian President Vladimir Putin denied this suggestion.
The radio-electronic center in Lourdes was created in Cuba in 1967 to intercept telephone and radio signals on the territory of the United States. The Soviet Union was believed to gather up to 75 percent of all information from telephone and radio conversations in the U.S. But in 2001, the Russian authorities closed the Lourdes center to improve relations with the administration of President George W. Bush. It was seen as a sign of goodwill and solidarity with America, when it was shaken by the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
However, there may be another explanation. After Moscow stopped granting multi-billion-dollar subsidies to the Cuban regime, its authorities required from Russia $200 million for renting the Lourdes base, which was a big enough sum that it was unacceptable for the top Russian military leadership. On top of that, the equipment in Lourdes was outdated and didn’t meet the basic requirements to effectively intercept radio signals in the U.S. Today intelligence data is gathered primarily through satellites, not through ground-based stations.
However, the times are changing. At any rate, the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov didn’t confirm the information about the return of the Lourdes base. Neither did he deny it.
“The international environment is not static, it is dynamic enough,” he said. “The latest two years brought some changes in foreign affairs. Therefore, all countries are naturally undertaking certain measures, which they see as necessary.”
Regarding Vietnam, Russia has established military-technical cooperation with this country. In 2013, Vietnam signed with Russia two agreements. The first one deals with the creation of a new joint base to maintain and repair submarines, while the second one deals with the simplified entry of Russian vessels into the port of Cam Ranh. Since spring 2014, the aerodrome at Cam Ranh has hosted Russian Il-78 planes.
However, Russian and foreign pundits are very skeptical about the restoration of the military base in Vietnam.
“Restoring the Soviet powerful naval base in Cam Ranh, which has been existing there since 1979 doesn’t make sense strategically — there are not so many threats in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean,” said Vladimir Frolov, an expert on international relations. “In addition, renting this base is hardly likely to cost the symbolic $1 million as it did previously.”
However, Vietnam should be interested in returning the Russian naval base. After all, in the Soviet era, the Cam Ranh base deterred China after the 1979 Vietnamese-Chinese war. Likewise, Vietnam does need Russia’s presence today to contain China amidst the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and frictions between Hanoi and Beijing.
However, Vietnam should take into account the position of the United States, its strategic partner. That’s why, at least, on the official level, it denies any possibility of restoring the Russian naval base. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said that Hanoi wouldn’t allow other countries to establish military bases on its territory.
"In the context of Russian foreign policy, such a declaration is an example of psychological warfare,” said Dario Citati, a fellow at Eurasia Research Program, at Institute of Advanced Studies in Geopolitics and Auxiliary Sciences (Rome). “Moscow wants to demonstrate that its global view is not limited to the post-Soviet space."
Likewise, regarding the return of the Russian military bases to Cuba’s Lourdes, experts are skeptical. According to Frolov, Havana’s isolation by the U.S. came to an end, with Washington having restored diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba. This means that it won’t sacrifices these benefits for the return of the Russian base, even if the Kremlin agrees to supply Cuba with oil for free.
Alexander Graef, a research associate from the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland), echoes this view. "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," he said.
According to Michael Kofman, a research scientist at the CNA Corporation, "Russia’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."
"The truer purpose is to escalate in the latest ‘war of words’ with the United States following the collapse of the Syrian ceasefire negotiations," Kofman argues.
Indeed, the Oct. 7 announcement of Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister, Nikolai Pankov, about the Kremlin’s plan to return Lourdes and Cam Ranh bases came as a result of the failure of Moscow and Washington to implement the second Syria ceasefire deal and the deterioration of U.S.-Russia relations, in general.
The times today are really different. One year ago, during his annual press conference with journalists, Putin said that he was not going to deploy Russia’s military bases in Syria. However, today Russia has already established the Khmeimim air force military base in the city of Latakia and deployed its S-400 missiles there. Setting up the Russian full-fledged naval base in Tartus is also a matter of time.
Moreover, there is also information about Russia’s possible military bases in Jableh, a coastal city on the Mediterranean in Syria. On top of that, the Kremlin is reported to have plans to establish powerful radars in the city of Palmyra to watch over the whole Middle East.
As expert Alexander Golts argues, the logic of confrontation means the more military bases are deployed abroad, the more secure is the country. However, according to the pundit, this approach doesn’t work today. For the Russian establishment, it is important not to fall behind America politically and from the point of view of the security and the presence of its military bases abroad.
According to the assessment of pundit Vadim Makarenkov, with the rise of international tensions, the military-political rivalry between global stakeholders is becoming commonplace and Russia is sending a signal to the U.S. that Washington “should take into account the fact the absence of mutual understanding on Syria, Ukraine and other problems will lead to serious implications not only for Moscow, but also for Washington.”
There is no clarity about the future of the Russian former military bases in Cuba and Vietnam. With Moscow and Washington heading towards Cold War confrontation, the situation becomes even less certain. However, it remains to be seen if other countries, the allies of Russia and the U.S., will be ready to be involved in this confrontation.