Throughout the 20th century, military analysts have considered military bases abroad to be an indicator of a state’s power and influence, demonstrating whether or not a country has the right to call itself a great power. Recently, with advances in military technology, Russian politicians and the military have begun questioning this logic.
In its own analysis on the issue, Russian news and analysis website Zvezda.ru ponders whether today’s Russia has a need for military bases in the ‘near abroad’ (i.e. the former Soviet Union) and elsewhere around the world.
“Recently,” Zvezda recalled, “President Vladimir Putin expressed his position on this issue.” Speaking at the traditional year-end press conference on December 17, 2015, Putin “questioned the need for the permanent deployment of Russian troops in Syria. According to the Russian leader, thanks to modern weapons, our country can ‘reach’ anyone, anywhere.”
Specifically, Putin referred to the capabilities of the 1,500 km-range Kalibr-class sea-based cruise missile and the 4,500 km-range air-dropped Kh-101 cruise missile, which had recently been demonstrated targeting jihadi terrorists in Syria. “Why should we need a base there [in Syria]? Should we need to reach somebody, we can do so without a base,” the president said, responding to a question about whether Russia would be deploying troops in the Middle Eastern country permanently.
“Why then, is the United States, which has in its arsenal weapons that are just as advanced, in no hurry to reduce its military presence in the world?” Zvezda asks. The answer, the news site suggests, is that most of the US’s 730 military bases worldwide are tasked not with defense, but with serving as “a unique form of colonization via the projection of power and military might on foreign territory.”
“According to Pentagon data (which, according to experts, greatly underestimates the real figures), the United States in recent years has owned or rented bases in 130 countries worldwide. At these bases there are 253,288 soldiers alone, plus an equal number of people including their families and civilians employed by the military. These bases have a total of 44,870 barracks, hangars, hospitals and other buildings, and another 4,844 buildings are leased.”
The military, Zvezda recalls, “does not skimp on these bases.” For example, according to a Washington Post piece written shortly after the invasion of Iraq, officers of the 82nd Airborne Division were served their dinners by waiters in white shirts, black pants, and black bow ties. “Some of these bases are so gigantic they require as many as nine internal bus routes for soldiers and civilian contractors to get around,” Zvezda noted, citing a 2004 article by American political scientist Chalmers Johnson.
“The US military,” Zvezda added, citing the Johnson piece, “has come up with a metaphorical definition for their bases abroad – ‘our footprint on the world.” Drawing such “clear, confident ‘footprints’ on the world map has become one of the ways for the US to advance and assert itself on new territories.”
The territories the US marked for its 21st century ‘family of bases’ have included the ‘new European’ countries including Romania, Poland and Bulgaria, Pakistan, India, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and even possibly Vietnam in Asia, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria in North Africa, and Senegal, Ghana, Mali and Sierra Leone in West Africa.
“The models for all these new installations,” the Johnson piece recalled, “are the string of bases we have built around the Persian Gulf in the last [three] decades in such anti-democratic autocracies as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.”
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These bases, according to Pentagon planners, effectively serve as ‘lily pads’ from which US forces could ‘jump’ from mainland USA, Europe and Japan, if the need arises.
Today, Zvezda notes, “the US, under the guise of the time-tested Cold War era slogan ‘the Russians are coming!’, has begun to build up its military power, primarily in Europe. At the same time, they do not even try to hide that the main force, as before, will be concentrated in Germany.”
“However, military analysts are well aware that the reason [for such an expansion] is not really a military threat from Russia, but the ability to keep German military power under Washington’s constant and vigilant control.”
Russian Bases in the Post-Soviet Space
In the post-Soviet period, the paper notes, Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, has traditionally “regarded its military bases as an instrument of state power, ready to defend not only Russian interests, but also the interests of allies. Military bases have always been considered a deterrent to enemies and as a complementary asset in the geopolitical arena. Russian military presence on the territory of other states has served to provide additional stability to the area.”
“Good examples of the latter are the Russian bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – countries which are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The price of Moscow’s presence there has been to train and completely reequip these countries’ militaries.”
“In Uzbekistan, since 2006, Moscow had used the airbase at Karshi-Khanabad for the operational buildup and deployment of Russian troops in Central Asia, but lost the use the airbase in connection to Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the CSTO in 2012.”
Factually, Zvezda notes, “after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has become increasingly difficult for Russia to maintain military bases in neighboring countries.”
For example, the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, formerly part of Ukraine, was always considered to be of supreme importance for Russia militarily, “at least until the construction of the port of Novorossiysk. But for as long as the Russian Black Sea Fleet was based in Sevastopol, Moscow regularly faced conflicts with Ukrainian authorities.”
“The base was used as a tool with which to pressure Moscow politically, and there is no doubt that if Crimea had remained part of Ukraine, today’s [post-Maidan] Ukrainian authorities, with Washington’s support, would have done everything they could to squeeze Russian sailors out of the peninsula. Just as likely, they would pull Russia into a serious armed conflict, making Moscow out to be the aggressor.”
“In any case,” Zvezda notes, “Russia in the near future will face an acute need for bases in Central Asia, because after the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, the hornet’s nest of Mujahedeen which has been stirred up has already resulted in a sharp aggravation of the situation in the region.”
In the former Soviet space as a whole, “Russia needs strong points from which it would be able to intervene if things take an unpleasant turn.” Unfortunately, in contrast to its US counterparts, Russian military bases abroad have always been subject to serious political bargaining.
“For example, for over 20 years, Russia has factually had a military base in Transnistria,” the unrecognized Moldovan breakaway. “The Russian Armed Forces there are part of a tripartite peacekeeping force, numbering about 1,200 troops. The authorities and population of the unrecognized republic are in favor of Russian soldiers continuing to remain in Transnistria. However, European politicians have made proposals to make changes to the format of the peacekeeping operation, including the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zone.”
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Ultimately, Zvezda notes, “on the whole, among post-Soviet countries, perhaps only Belarus and Armenia have provided real military assistance to Russia in the current confrontation with NATO, without charging stratospheric sums” for the privilege.
Rumors and Realities of Russian Bases Abroad
During the Soviet period, the paper recalls, “the USSR had military bases on every continent except Australia. But after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia abandoned virtually all their foreign bases. And often times the reason was not only economic difficulties,” but Moscow’s attempts to carve out a new course in its relationship with Washington in the post-Cold War world.
Пункты базирования ВМФ ВС СССР, 1984 г.. А что сейчас от этого осталось? НИ-ЧЕ-ГО… pic.twitter.com/nnDMrkUo
— Oleg Kong (@OlegKong) November 9, 2011
Soviet Navy supply points worldwide, 1984.
“For example, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Vladimir Putin was the first foreign leader to call President Bush and to express his condolences and solidarity with the American people.”
“Russia’s reaction to the tragedy was emotional, sincere and dignified. For the first time in half-a-century, Moscow and Washington now had a common enemy – international terrorism. The US and Russia found themselves to be de facto allies in a war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. There was a real prospect for a relationship between the two countries based on the principles of partnership and deep cooperation. Russia also issued a comprehensive program on its contribution to the fight against terrorism, supporting the US in conducting its operations in Afghanistan.”
Cooperation, Zvezda recalled, included intelligence sharing, the right for US Air Force to use Russian airspace, endorsing the decision of the Central Asian countries to provide air bases for operations in Afghanistan, and expanded military-technical assistance to the Northern Alliance.
“Moreover, as a goodwill gesture, Moscow decided to close its military bases in Vietnam and Cuba, positioning the decision as a ‘step toward Washington.’ However, Washington’s response was not what Moscow might have expected. On December 13, 2001, President Bush announced the US intention to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The US explained the move by arguing that treaties on arms control between the two countries are no longer needed, since the US and Russia were no longer enemies.”
“In reality, this decision was another step toward securing American dominance in the world. It was clear that after 9/11, the world saw a new era of the geopolitical repartition of territories, with the US having an excellent opportunity to establish its military bases across Asia. Over time, rumors began to emerge in the world’s media that Russia too was ready to regain access to some of its lost bases, and to get new ones.”
“Specifically, it was reported that during a visit of the Russian delegation to Cuba, during which it was announced that Moscow would cancel the country’s $32 billion debt, an agreement had also been reached on Russia’s right to use the signals intelligence center in Lourdes. However, the next day, Vladimir Putin refuted the reports, saying that Russia has the ability ‘to solve the tasks faced in the area of defense without this component’.”
“It was also later written that Argentina had agreed to host Russian military bases. The information appeared at the moment when the whole world was fixated on the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. The Russian foreign ministry called the information nothing more than ‘provocative hearsay’.”
“But as far as the former base at Cam Ranh (Vietnam) is concerned, some progress really has occurred.” In 2001, Russia decided not to renew the lease on the base, and to abandon it ahead of schedule, with the last Russian soldier leaving in May 2002. “But in November 2013, in the course of Russian-Vietnamese talks, both sides signed an agreement to establish a joint framework for the maintenance and repair of submarines at the base.”
Apart from that, “until recently, the only Russian military base abroad, [outside the former USSR] was the 720th Material-Technical Support Point in Tartus, Syria, established back in 1971.”
Russian Strategy on Bases Abroad
Ultimately, Zvezda notes, the question remains: “does Russia need military bases abroad or not?”
“Before answering this question, one should refer to Russia’s military doctrine, which is based on the assessment of military threats and the political interests of the Russian state. If this document had implied that Russia has claims to world domination, or needs some oil-producing areas abroad, in the Middle East perhaps, then maybe we would need these bases in such oil-bearing regions, and perhaps throughout the world.”
“But our government has not presented such doctrinal goals, even though high-ranking Russian officials have repeatedly said that we will increase our presence in other countries.” This include Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s 2014 remarks about Russia’s plans to increase its presence abroad, and talks with countries including Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Seychelles, and Singapore.However, here as well, “it’s worth noting that we are not talking about the creation of full-fledged military bases with thousands of personnel, of the type the US has in regions around the globe. For Russia, it is important, first and foremost, to have logistical points for its Navy and Air Force. For example, ships on long voyages may need repair, refueling and resupply; these purely technical issues cannot be solved without such supply points. Today, Russia has such facilities in Syria and Vietnam.”
“Another suitable option for expanding our military presence abroad is being granted the possibility for the simplified entry of Russian Navy ships into the ports of other countries. The relevant agreements have been signed with several countries, including Nicaragua and Equatorial Guinea.”
In any case, “it should be borne in mind that the modern weaponry at Russia’s disposal allows it not to need military bases around the world…including because the upkeep of such bases would be a serious burden for any government.”
“Why should Russia carry such a burden if, as demonstrated by the military operation in Syria, we have modern strategic aviation capable of carrying out high-precision missile launches without even entering the conflict zone?” In today’s world, Zvezda notes, “to solve specific combat objectives, it is enough to create temporary air bases, such the one at Hmeymim.”
At that base, Russia has “support services of a modular design, which can be easily dismantled, loaded onto military transport aircraft and returned to Russia in a matter of days. On this basis, Russian policy on military bases, apparently, should be flexible enough. In the case of Russian bases, Moscow should be guided by its military priorities, but at the same time watch its resources carefully. A balanced approach is necessary,” combining “an evaluation of military realities and financial capabilities.”
“In this way, for example, it can be said that the military base in Armenia has been a success, including because the leadership and the people of this country are interested in the Russian military presence, in the same way that the population of the partially recognized Republic of South Ossetia finds the presence of Russian troops vital to its existence.”
In the final analysis, Zvezda notes, “it can be concluded that the deployment of Russian military bases, wherever it may be, depends on the development of the military-political situation in general, and in particular regions specifically. At the same time, it is impossible not to see that the situation is just heating up, and that the zone of instability is steadily approaching our borders. The issue of a [permanent] NATO presence in Ukraine is being seriously discussed. If this NATO policy continues, Russia will be forced to expand its bases abroad as advance defense points, as far away from Russian borders as possible, so that it will be possible, as military strategists say, ‘to meet the enemy on the distant approaches’.”