Russia’s boast that it plans to extend its naval forces to bases in Cuba, the Seychelles and Vietnam poses little strategic threat to U.S. interests in Latin America, the Indian Ocean or the Pacific, analysts say.
It is more a political move than a military one, as President Vladimir Putin continues to contest American supremacy, particularly during the Syrian crisis.
The Russian fleet may number 300 ships, about the same as the U.S. Navy, but its aging warships are less advanced than America’s high-powered guided-missile cruisers and destroyers. The Kremlin owns only one operational aircraft carrier, as opposed to Washington’s 11 nuclear-powered carriers and strike groups that comprise what is called a “blue-water” navy able to operate far from home.
Moscow deploys few ships outside its waters, while the Pentagon stations a quarter of the fleet at sea at any one time.
“Russia is trying to punch above its weight in world affairs, trying to pretend it is a major world power when it is in fact a state in [a] declining strategic circumstance,” said James Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
“The declaration of wanting more navy bases, a throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, is just another example. The Soviets never had a real blue-water power-projection capability, and neither does Russia.”
Russia’s top naval officer, Vice Adm. Viktor Chirkov, told the country’s RIA news agency Friday that Moscow is holding talks to put naval bases in Cuba, Vietnam and the Indian Ocean island nation of Seychelles. Russia operates only one overseas base — a strategically important one in the port city of Tartus, Syria.
“It is true. We are working on the deployment of Russian naval bases outside Russian territory,” he said.
Naval sources note that Russian navy leaders have boasted before about goals such as fielding more aircraft carriers, but the declarations were unfulfilled.
“Russia has made a series of grand pronouncements about engagement in this region, and the words end up outpacing the deeds,” said P.J. Crowley, a former top spokesman for the State Department. “But clearly Putin is fighting the perception that Russia is no longer a global power, only a regional power, and is trying to restore some trappings of Russia’s past.”
The only way Mr. Putin can project power is with his navy and perhaps some permanent ports of call.
“Putin would like to do it because right now the navy is the only force that he has to demonstrate Russia is still a world power,” said Norman Polmar, a naval analyst and author of several books about the Russian navy.
“He can’t send the army anywhere. He can’t send his airplanes anywhere without over-flight rights, and people don’t like to let military planes fly over their countries.”
Russia already has been using its navy to send signals against the U.S. Last year, it dispatched a nuclear-powered cruiser task force to Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez has made alliances with Iran and China and sees himself as an irritant to U.S. interests in Latin America. Russian ships also have been showing up in Cuba, another U.S. foe.