Source: Military Watch Magazine
The announcement of plans for the establishment of a Russian naval base on Sudan’s east coast, which has reportedly been under consideration since 2017 but is thought to have been delayed by a Western backed coup in the African country in April 2019, has given are grounds for speculation that Russia could be planning to reestablish a stronger naval presence overseas by opening further facilities in other vital theatres. Late in 2017 the Head of the Russian Defense and Security Committee Viktor Bondarev suggested that Moscow could consider restoring its military presences in Cuba and Vietnam, referring to these countries as Russia’s “historical partners” on the basis that both hosted Soviet military facilities during the Cold War and relied heavily on Soviet support to counter Western threats. Bondarev stated that restoring the country’s military presence was in the “interests of international security,” as a result of “intensified U.S. aggression.”
Russia’s only foreign military facilities outside the former Soviet Union are in Syria, where the country maintains both a key naval base on the Mediterranean Sea in Latakia province, and the nearby Khmemim Airbase which was established in September 2015 to facilitate a contribution to the Syrian government’s war effort. Facilities in Sudan are expected o be ambitious in size, according to the recently released plans, and will have a capacity for 300 military and civilian personnel and four ships including nuclear vessels, indicating that Moscow is willing to invest in such projects to enhance its maritime power projection capabilities and boost its overseas presence. Facilities in Vietnam and Cuba however would allow Russia to project power to strategically critical regions, the former being the most hotly contested and arguably the most strategically critical in the world today, and the latter placing Russian assets near the American coast – and in a strong position to support nearby Venezuela and Bolivia which are important strategic partners. With Russia gently rebalancing its military towards a greater focus on East Asia, Vietnam is a potentially ideal host for historical, political and geographic reasons. Neither China nor North Korea are expected to allow any permanent foreign military presence on their soil, and facilities on Russian territory are effectively boxed in by the Japanese islands, where there is a heavy U.S. presence, which impede open access to the Pacific.
Regarding to the potential for future foreign military facilities, Victor Bondarev stated: “I believe under the condition of increased tension in the world and frank intervention in the internal affairs of other countries – Russia’s historical partners – our return to Latin America is not ruled out. Of course, this should be coordinated with the Cubans… We should also think about our Navy’s return to Vietnam with the permission of the [Vietnamese] government.” He stressed that such steps would be effective responses to increased U.S. assertiveness in both regions. Bondarev has been far from alone in calls for such action, with his statement coming just hours after the first deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s upper chamber’s Defense and Security Committee, Frants Klintsevich, called for a reopening of military facilities in Cuba specifically. Given the generally low endurance of post-Soviet Russian surface warships, which are no heaver than frigates, the existence of overseas bases is particularly highly valued. Russia’s most heavily armed Soviet era warships, the Kirov Class nuclear powered battlecruisers, are currently undergoing a comprehensive and very ambitious refurbishment which will allow them to deploy considerable force for port visits across much of the world as required – with these having a higher endurance than any surface combatant fielded by any other country.
In 2016 Russian lawmakers Valery Rushkin and Sergei Obukhov submitted a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu calling on them to consider the restoration of overseas military bases. This development came two years after the Crimean crisis and the sharp deterioration of relations with the West, and following the establishment of Khmeimim Airbase and beginning of a successful military campaign in Syria in 2015. Amid growing tensions with the Western Bloc, and in light of Russia’s expanding roles in both the Pacific and South America, such plans may well come to fruition – in particular if the upcoming U.S. administration recommits the United States to the Pivot to Asia initiative. A Russian military presence would shift the balance of power in both regions significantly against the favour of Western interests, and whether the facilities are naval or air bases they are likely to deploy a number asymmetric military assets such as hypersonic missiless to compensate for a smaller presence. In Vietnam in particular, it would also provide opportunities for more joint military exercises and potentially increase the appeal of more Russian arms purchases for the Vietnamese military – which is considered a leading client for several next generation weapons systems.