Russia seeks navy bases in Cuba, Vietnam

MOSCOW — Russia is in talks to set up naval bases in former Cold War allies Cuba and Vietnam as President Vladimir Putin undertakes the country’s biggest military overhaul since the Soviet era.

“We are working on establishing navy bases outside Russia,” Vice-Admiral Viktor Chirkov said in an interview with the state-run RIA Novosti news service and confirmed by the navy. “We aim to set up resupply bases in Cuba, the Seychelles and Vietnam.”

Russian plans for overseas military expansion threatens to further strain relations with the U.S. at a time when the former superpower rivals are at loggerheads over American missile-shield plans and fighting in Syria. Putin’s government plans to spend $712 billion this decade on defense spending, including an increase next year of 19 percent.

“There’s a lot of tension between Washington and Moscow right now as Syria is creating a lot of bad feeling between them,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst in Moscow. “This will be seen by some in the U.S. as the Russian bear growling in its lair.”

Russia risks losing its only military base outside the former Soviet Union, a naval resupply facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, as President Bashar al-Assad fights for survival in the face of a 17-month uprising.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz in 2008 warned Russia not to cross a “red line” by stationing bombers in Cuba, where the deployment of Soviet missiles brought Moscow and Washington close to nuclear conflict in 1962. Schwartz commented after the newspaper Izvestia said Russia planned to build a refueling base for strategic aircraft in the Communist island state in response to U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Europe. The Russian Defense Ministry later denied the report.

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said his country is ready to allow Russia to set up a servicing facility in Can Ramh Bay, a former Soviet naval base, though Vietnam will not lease its territory to any country, in an interview broadcast by Voice of Russia radio. Sang held talks with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow Thursday and was scheduled to meet President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi Friday. Cuban leader Raul Castro held talks with Putin in Moscow earlier this month. Calls to the Cuban Embassy in Moscow weren’t answered.

Russia doesn’t have the naval resources at the moment for a permanent presence outside its territorial waters, with only about 30 major warships split between five fleets, so the possibility of opening resupply bases doesn’t mean an expansion of Russian maritime power, Felgenhauer said.

“But this is good news for the U.S. Navy,” which is seeking more funding, said Felgenhauer. “They can go to Congress to warn that Russia is trying to get a presence around the world.”

The United States plans to increase its naval power in the Pacific as the Pentagon rebalances its forces toward the Asia-Pacific region, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in June. Chirkov said Thursday that Russia may acquire another 10 to 15 naval ships this year, including frigates and nuclear-powered submarines, according to RIA Novosti.

Under the deal that ended the 1962 Cuban crisis, the Soviet Union withdrew its missiles and pledged not to station offensive weapons on the island, which lies near the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico 90 miles south of Florida.

Russian military cooperation with Cuba ended in 2002 after Russia closed its radar base at Lourdes, Russia’s only intelligence-gathering center in the Western hemisphere, which had been operating since the 1960s.

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