Russian media recently reported that Russia was planning to set up naval facilities in Yemen (Socotra), Syria (Tartus), Libya (Tripoli), Vietnam (Cam Ranh), among other countries, in the next few years as an alternative to the Sevastopol base in Ukraine's Crimea.
"Even 10 Tartuses or Cam Rahns can't replace Sevastopol for the Russian Navy," said Adm. Viktor Kravchenko, commander of the Black Sea Fleet in 1996-1998.
Russia's Black Sea Fleet uses a range of naval facilities in Ukraine's Crimea, including the main base in Sevastopol, as part of a 1997 agreement, under which Ukraine agreed to lease the bases to Russia until 2017.
Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko announced in the summer that Ukraine would not extend the lease of the Sevastopol base beyond 2017, and urged the Russian fleet to start preparations for a withdrawal.
Although the agreement for Russia's use of the base includes a possible extension of the lease, with Moscow repeatedly saying it wants to negotiate on the issue, Ukraine reiterated in October that it would not permit an extension of Russia's naval presence in the country after 2017.
"Sevastopol is a unique Russian base, which includes the entire infrastructure: piers, ammunition depots, food stores, roads, maintenance facilities, airstrips, etc," Kravchenko said.
At the same time, the admiral emphasized the importance of the network of Russian naval bases around the world, including in the Mediterranean, for the quick deployment of the Russian Navy in urgent situations.
Adm. Igor Kasatonov, commander of the Black Sea Fleet in 1991-1992, said the Mediterranean had always been an important region for Russia because it provides easy access to the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal and to the Atlantic through Gibraltar.
"In this respect, bases in Syria can largely expand the capabilities and combat effectiveness of the Russian Navy. However, the facilities at Tartus, for example, will never be able to replace Sevastopol," the admiral said.
The Soviet-era Navy maintenance site near Tartus in Syria is the only Russian foothold in the Mediterranean.
Russian media reports have suggested the facility could be turned into a base for the country's Black Sea Fleet, which could lose its current main base in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula in 2017.
About 50 naval personnel and three floating piers are reportedly deployed at the Tartus site, which can accommodate up to a dozen warships, and Russia is expanding the port and building a pier in nearby Latakia.
Meanwhile, the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces said last week that it was too soon to name any countries where the Russian Navy would like to deploy "basing points," but confirmed that the General Staff had backed the Navy command's proposal to develop naval infrastructure outside Russia.
"At this stage it is too early to talk about the geographic location of the basing points. Negotiations are under way with the governments of the countries in question. Any premature disclosure could have a negative impact on the course of these negotiations," Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn said.