- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 4, 2007

MOSCOW — Russia stirred memories of the Cold War yesterday when the head of the country’s navy called for the establishment of a permanent naval base in the Mediterranean for the first time since the Soviet era.

Announced a day after an audacious mission to the North Pole to bolster Russia’s territorial claims in the Arctic, Moscow’s renewed naval ambitions are likely to spread further unease in NATO capitals.

“The Mediterranean Sea is very important strategically,” Adm. Vladimir Masorin said on a tour of the Russian navy’s Black Sea base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. “I propose that, with the involvement of the Northern and Baltic fleets, the Russian navy should restore its permanent presence there.”

His remarks raise doubts about the Kremlin’s denial last year of a newspaper claim that new moorings were being built in the Syrian port of Tartus.

Ivan Safronov, the journalist who died in a mysterious fall from a building in Moscow earlier this year, said Russia also had begun expanding the port at Latakia, also in Syria.

President Vladimir Putin has been eager to restore Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, signing contentious arms deals with Syria and Iran that have upset the United States and Israel.

If the port plan proceeds, Russian vessels and warships from the U.S. 6th Fleet, based in Italy, would face each other in the Mediterranean for the first time since the Cold War, when the Soviet navy was based in Tartus.

Russia maintains a symbolic and largely empty logistical facility at Tartus — its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

Russia’s Kommersant newspaper said last year that the Russian navy had dredged the port at Tartus in preparation for deploying a force there. But the newspaper said the navy was, in part, using the Syrian base as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Ukraine over its lease for Sevastopol.

Moscow rents the facilities for $93 million a year under a 1997 agreement that lasts until 2017. Ukraine has sought to increase the price.

“It has been the dream of our admirals for a long time to restore our naval greatness and keep the task force we had under the Soviet Union,” military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told Reuters news agency.

Russia’s new assertiveness has created friction and prompted some Western policy-makers to make comparisons to the Cold War.

Mr. Putin has said Russia would target its missiles at sites in Europe if Washington went ahead with a plan to build elements of a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. He also has suspended Russia’s compliance with an arms control treaty.

Washington will be watching both developments in the Mediterranean and the Arctic with concern.

Yesterday, it bluntly warned Moscow that any attempt to claim sovereignty over the Arctic would not be tolerated after Russia planted its national flag under the North Pole on Thursday.

“I’m not sure whether they’ve put a metal flag, a rubber flag or a bedsheet on the ocean floor,” said Tom Casey, a spokesman for the State Department. “Either way, it doesn’t have any legal standing.”

In a record-breaking expedition led by Artur Chilingarov, a veteran polar explorer, two deep-sea submersibles descended 14,000 feet. The successful operation was greeted with jubilation in Russia, where it stirred memories of derring-do from the golden era of Soviet naval exploration.

Like other countries with Arctic coastlines, Russia has laid claims for greater territory in the oil-rich area and will present its case to a U.N. commission in 2010.