- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Having just staked a claim to the North Pole, Russia is now eyeing the Mediterranean.

With Moscow’s coffers replenished by the global oil boom, Adm. Vladimir Masorin, Russia’s naval commander, has announced ambitious plans to expand the country’s primary Black Sea base and establish a “permanent presence” in the eastern Mediterranean for the first time since the Cold War.

“The Mediterranean is very important strategically for the Black Sea Fleet,” the admiral told reporters Friday on a visit to the Russian base at Sevastopol.

“I propose that, with the involvement of the Northern and Baltic fleets, the Russian navy should restore its permanent presence there,” the admiral said.

The rebuilding of the Russian navy and its bases on the Baltic and Black seas, devastated with the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been a pet project of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The admiral visited Sevastopol just days after a Russian mini-sub planted a flag on the ocean floor beneath the North Pole in a bid to strengthen Moscow’s disputed claims to the mineral-rich seabed.

Ariel Cohen, a Russian security analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said the Arctic and Black Sea moves reflect the Kremlin’s growing confidence and willingness to project power.

Russia is flush with cash and is looking for areas to boost its geopolitical muscle,” Mr. Cohen said. “That has translated into ambitious strategic programs, whether it’s in the Black Sea or grabbing a piece of the Arctic continental shelf the size of Western Europe.”

Russian naval officials plan a massive expansion of the Black Sea naval base at Novorossiysk to offset the expected loss of the Sevastopol base when a leasing deal with Ukraine expires in 2017. Russian engineers have been building new piers, barracks and port facilities at Novorossiysk.

Adm. Masorin outlined a major shift of assets to the Russian port, including landing ships, minesweepers, at least a dozen submarines and regular visits of the Kuznetzov — the country’s only aircraft carrier — to the Black Sea.

The admiral’s comments on the Mediterranean have added fuel to speculation that Russia also is considering the creation of a permanent, full-service naval base in the Syrian coastal town of Tartus, on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean.

The Kremlin has denied any plans for the Syrian site, a supply and maintenance base for the Soviet navy during the Cold War and still the site of the only Russian base outside the confines of the old Soviet Union.

But Russian engineers have been involved in dredging the waters around both Tartus and Latakia, a second Syrian coastal town.

A detailed June 2 report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant, citing Russian Defense Ministry sources, said Tartus and Latakia were being considered as alternatives after the looming loss of Sevastopol.

Adm. Masorin did not mention Syria on his trip last week, and Russian military officials have strongly denied the Kommersant report.

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