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Russian navy covets Mediterranean Sea

- 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.

A permanent Russian base in Syria would unnerve both the United States and Israel, and would be close to the strategic Turkish port of Ceyhan, the terminus of a major new oil pipeline linked to the Azerbaijani port city of Baku.

Washington has clashed repeatedly with Syrian President Bashar Assad over Iraq, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern hot spots.

But Russia's military has long-standing links to its Syrian counterpart, dating back to the Cold War. About 2,000 Russian advisers reportedly are serving as trainers and advisers to the Syrian armed forces.

Moscow has agreed to write off more than 70 percent of an $11 billion debt owed by Syria, leading to speculation that the concession was granted in return for expanded rights at Tartus and Latakia.

Mr. Cohen said the Russian maneuvering reflected in part the strategic and political challenge of losing Sevastopol in 10 years.

"That would really be a blow to the prestige and morale of the Russian navy, which has been there for more than 200 years," he said.