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Navy chief says Russia wants naval bases abroad

- - Saturday, July 28, 2012

MOSCOW — Russia is talking to Cuba, Vietnam and the Indian Ocean island country of Seychelles about housing Russian navy ships, the nation's navy chief said in remarks reported Friday.

Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov told the state RIA Novosti news agency that Russia is in talks about setting up maintenance and supply facilities for Russian ships in those countries but wouldn't give any further details, the Associated Press reported.

Russia's only existing naval base outside the Soviet Union is located in the Syrian port of Tartus. A squadron of Russian navy ships, including several assault ships carrying marines, is currently heading to Tartus in a show of support for a longtime ally whom Moscow protected from international sanctions and continued to supply with weapons.

Chirkov's statement marked a sharp about-face for Russia, which closed a Soviet-era naval base at Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay and a spy base in Lourdes on Cuba in the early 2000s during President Vladimir Putin's first term.

Along with financial reasons, that move was part of Putin's bid to improve ties with the United States. But relations with Washington deteriorated and Putin, who was re-elected to a third term in March, has grown increasingly eager to challenge Washington. During his election campaign, he accused the U.S. of encouraging protest against his 12-year rule in order to weaken Russia, and pledged to strengthen the nation's military might.

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said his country is ready to allow Russia to set up a servicing facility in Can Ramh Bay, a former Soviet naval base though Vietnam will not lease its territory to any country, in an interview broadcast by Voice of Russia radio, AFP reported.

Russia doesn't have the naval resources at the moment for a permanent presence outside its territorial waters, with only about 30 major warships split between five fleets, so the possibility of opening resupply bases doesn't mean an expansion of Russian maritime power, said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent defense analyst in Moscow in an AFP report.

"But this is good news for the U.S. Navy," which is seeking more funding, Felgenhauer said. "They can go to Congress to warn that Russia is trying to get a presence around the world."

In Washington, a Pentagon spokesman said the United States was not concerned by Russian moves to re-establish foreign bases.

"The Russian government has interest in various parts of the world, it's their right to promote those interests," George Little said.

He noted that the United States is itself pursuing closer relations with Vietnam. "They have allowed access for U.S. supply ships to enter Vietnamese waters, including Cam Ranh Bay," he said.