2710257 10/01/2015 Technicians at Syria's Hmeimim airport where Russian aircraft are deployed. Dmitriy Vinogradov/RIA Novosti

2710257 10/01/2015 Technicians at Syria’s Hmeimim airport where Russian aircraft are deployed. Dmitriy Vinogradov/RIA Novosti

By Gilberto Villahermosa, National Security Commentator and Published Author

Moscow’s plans to reestablish military bases around the globe do not match its capabilities. Russia will rediscover that doing so is expensive politically, but especially economically. Furthermore, a Russian move to reestablish its former naval base in Vietnam will clash with Chinese aspirations and exacerbate tensions between Beijing and Moscow. It is thus unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin or his successors will succeed in recreating the former Soviet global presence of their dreams around the world.

According to Russian news agencies, Russia is considering plans to restore or establish permanent military bases in Syria, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Seychelles, and Singapore. Russia’s bases in Vietnam and Cuba once served as pivots of Soviet global military power during the Cold War. “We are dealing with this issue,” the agencies quoted Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov as saying in Russia’s parliament.

Moscow announced that Russia will create a permanent naval base in Syria to in order expand its military footprint in the Middle East. The move, also announced by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov, is further evidence Russia is building up its capabilities in Syria despite a partial drawdown in March and another sign it is digging in for the long haul to help prop up President Bashar al-Assad. “By doing this Russia is not only increasing its military potential in Syria, but in the entire Middle East,” Senator Igor Morozov, a member of the upper house of parliament’s International Affairs Committee, told the RIA news agency.

Moscow already has a permanent air base in Syria, from which it flies air strikes against anti-Assad rebels and uses military trainers, special forces, marines and artillery specialists to help support Syrian government forces on the ground.Senator Morozov said that having a permanent naval base as well would allow Russia to operate more ships in the Mediterranean as they would have an enhanced facility where they could refuel and resupply. Moscow inherited the Tartus facility when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is now the Russian navy’s sole foothold in the Mediterranean. Despite some modernization, it is currently fairly modest and unable to welcome larger warships. Leonid Slutsky, a senior parliamentarian, told RIA its capacity would be expanded and it would be equipped with anti-submarine defenses and new electronics systems on top of the S-300 missiles it recently received.

The announcement comes days after Moscow announced it will seek to reestablish bases in Cuba and Vietnam. The Soviet Union lowered its flag at the Lourdes signals intelligence base in Cuba and the deep water Cam Rahn naval base in Vietnam in the early 2000s as part of a drawing down of Russia’s military presence around the world after the demise of the Soviet Union. Since then, Moscow’s foreign policy has become more assertive, leading to tensions with the United States and its allies over, among other issues, the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and the presence of NATO troops in eastern Europe. Pankov said the Defence Ministry was currently “rethinking” past decisions on closure of the bases, but declined to go into detail. Vietnam’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment and Cuban officials were not available. During the Soviet period, Cuba offered Moscow its closest military installation to U.S. territory, less than 100 km (60 miles) from the Florida Keys. “The global situation is not static, it is in flux, and the last two years have made significant changes to international affairs and security,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters. “Therefore, it’s quite natural that all countries assess these changes in line with their national interests and take certain steps in the way they consider appropriate.”

The move will not be easy for Russia. The United States is in the process of strengthening its own diplomatic and military relations with Cuba and Vietnam. Both countries must decide whether America or Russian can provide them with the greatest economic and political assistance. In light of Moscow’s deep and chronic financial problems, the answer is obvious.

By threatening to move into Vietnam, Russia also challenges China and its plan for dominance in the Pacific. Possession or use by harbors in the country undermine Beijing’s ability to do so. Chinese leaders understand that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not reign forever and that Russia and the United States are only one diplomatic move away from a second Post-Soviet rapprochement. They remember how Washington used Beijing to contain the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s and realize that the United States will attempt to do the same with Russia against China, despite the current miserable state of U.S. – Russian relations. Moscow’s move to restore its bases in Vietnam will thus exacerbate political and military tensions between Russia and China.

Chinese dominance in the Pacific must come at the expense of the United States.Beijing has worked relentlessly to control or neutralize Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Australia in the event of a Pacific war in order to deny Washington the ability to conduct a South Pacific strategy against it, as it did against Imperial Japan in World War II, in the event of another Pacific War. Neutralizing South Korea and Japan in the event of a conflict can be accomplished by threatening the first with a North Korean invasion should it become involved and the second with the possibility of massive conventional missile strikes, especially on Japanese nuclear power plants, resurrecting the national trauma of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster of 2011. The Philippines, on the verge of cutting ties with the United States, is self-neutralizing. Beijing must devise a strategy for neutralizing Vietnam and Australia. A Russian move into Vietnam would greatly complicate China’s plans of dominance.

As for Russia, Moscow’s plans to reestablish military bases around the globe do not match its capabilities. Vladimir Putin will rediscover that doing so is expensive not only politically, but especially economically. It is thus unlikely that he or his successors will succeed in recreating the Soviet global presence of his dreams around the world.

Gilberto Villahermosa is a retired U.S. Army Colonel with more than thirty years of service and experience as a Combat Arms officers, Foreign Area Specialist (Russia, Eurasia, and the Middle East), Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Army Strategist, and Army Historian. He has lived and worked in Europe, Russia and Eurasia, Central Asia and Afghanistan, and the Middle East. He is the author of two books and dozens of articles on national security and historical topics.