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    A Russian radar station is seen in Lourdes, about 12 miles south of Havana, Cuba Wednesday Oct. 17, 2001

    If Russia Returns to Cuba & Vietnam, It Won't Be in Grand Soviet Style

    © AP Photo/ Cristobal Herrera
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    On Friday, Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said that the Defense Ministry was looking into reestablishing Russian bases in Cuba and Vietnam. Analysts speaking to one of Russia's leading online newspapers suggested that if Russia does return, its bases will be a cost-effective deployment compared to that of the old Soviet juggernaut.

    Asked whether the Defense Ministry has any plans to reopen Soviet-era bases in countries including Vietnam and Cuba, Pankov confirmed that "we are engaged in this work." The deputy minister did not go into detail, but noted that the military was 'rethinking' the decision taken in the early 2000s to end the Russian military presence in these countries.

    Presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov was just as tight-lipped. Asked to comment on Pankov's remarks at a press briefing later in the day, Peskov noted only that "the last two years have introduced significant adjustments to international affairs and the international security regime." Accordingly, "all countries, in accordance with their national interests, are assessing these changes and taking certain measures in the direction they see fit."

    The spokesman urged journalists looking for more information about possible military deployment to refer to the Ministry of Defense.

    Russia's military presence in Cuba ended in 2002, when the famous Lourdes SIGINT station, located in western Cuba and operated by Russian Foreign Intelligence, was closed. The listening post, situated just a few hundred km from the US border, was capable of intercepting radio data across virtually the entire continental United States. Then-Chief of the Russian General Staff Anatoli Kvashnin justified the decision to close the base by pointing out that the cost to rent the station was around $200 million a year. For that money, Kvashnin said, Russia "could by 20 reconnaissance satellites, as well as about 100 modern radars."

    In the case of Vietnam, the Russian military withdrew from the Cam Ranh Naval Base in 2002. Once serving as a major Soviet (and later Russian) air, naval and intelligence facility in the Pacific, Moscow's lease on Cam Ranh officially expired in 2004. However, in the spring of 2014, Moscow and Hanoi signed an agreement allowing Russia to use the base to stage its Il-78 tanker aircraft, used to refuel Tu-95 strategic bombers operating in the region. In November 2014, a simplified port of call procedure was established for Russian ships entering Cam Ranh for maintenance and repair.

    Analysts have since criticized Moscow's early 2000s withdrawal from the two countries, speculating that the decision was caused at least in part due to pressure from Washington. For over a decade, as a gesture of goodwill to its Western partners, Russia did not make any attempts to return to the countries in the military sense.

    However, in 2014, amid deteriorating relations with the US and its allies over the crisis in Ukraine, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Moscow was looking to expand its military presence abroad. The minister confirmed that negotiations were taking place on deploying Russian facilities in Vietnam and Cuba, with negotiations on possible naval and air resupply points also taking place with the Seychelles, Singapore, Algeria, Cyprus, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and other countries.

    Pondering the significance of Deputy Defense Minister Pankov's comments, and the likelihood of a serious redeployment of Russian forces to Cuba and Vietnam, independent online newspaper Svobodnaya Pressa turned to several respected Russian military analysts for their thoughts on the issue.

    Speaking to the paper, Vladimir Karjakin, a professor at the Military University of the Russian Defense Ministry of Defense, suggested that reopening the Lourdes SIGINT facility would significantly improve Russian radio intelligence, whose effectiveness is low compared to that of the US.

    "In its own time, the intelligence center at Lourdes kept virtually the entire Western Hemisphere in its view, monitoring the US at a depth of several thousand kilometers," the retired Air Force colonel recalled.

    "The facilities in Cuba allowed for the collection of information on the US's adherence to arms control agreements, to conduct the interception of telephone conversations in the US, to track submarines and engage in industrial espionage," Karjakin added. 

    Moreover, "according to Raul Castro, the [Cuba-based] radar system gave Russia three-quarters of its intelligence on the US. In turn, the Cubans received information necessary to ensuring the island's security." After the collapse of the USSR, the base stationed staff of Russian military and foreign intelligence. In 1997, the base had its equipment modernized.

    The expert suggested it it's entirely possible that Pankov's comments "may be only a demonstration of intent, and an element of information warfare against the background of deteriorating relations between Moscow and Washington. But really the present is a very opportune moment to return to Cuba as far as politics is concerned. It would be better to settle in in Cuba today, while the Obama administration is packing its bags, and get a trump card in our hand, than to do it after the elections, while we sort out our relations with the next president."

    Andrei Frolov, editor-in-chief of Russia's Arms Export magazine, agreed with his colleague, suggesting that "in spite of developments in satellite technology, the radar at Lourdes would allow us to capture a great deal of information, including cellular communications, whose analysis could be of interest." In its own time, the Lourdes complex was even said to be capable of recording the takeoff and landing of US military planes. Restoring this capability would certainly be a benefit, Frolov noted.

    As far as Cam Ranh is concerned, Karjakin suggested that the question of beefing up the Russian presence there "can wait," particularly in light of the fact that Moscow already has the opportunity to use the base for its limited needs.

    "During the Soviet period, Cam Ranh grew from a logistics center to one of the USSR's largest foreign military bases, holding the Navy's 17th Operational Squadron. If featured a wharf complex, an airfield with a mixed air regiment, and air defenses. At any one time, the port held 20 ships, allowing the Pacific Fleet to essentially control the southern Pacific and the entire Indian Ocean." 

    Today, Karjakin  noted, a large "military presence in Vietnam would not be particularly advantageous –given the complex relationship between Vietnam and Beijing; especially since our ships have the opportunity to make a port call, while our tankers and bombers can be maintained and refueled. In recent years, Russia has not conducted any serious operations in this region. In the future, our military could increase its use of Cam Ranh, but this will require an increase in the number of surface ships in our Navy."

    For his part, Alexander Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis, suggested that when it comes to any talk of a possible return of Russian military forces to Cuba and Vietnam, the key question is: "Are the Cubans and Vietnamese ready to have us?"

    "I think that the Cubans would happily agree to the restoration of the Lourdes station," the expert noted. "As far as Vietnam is concerned, I think they are ready for cooperation, but only in the same context that exists today." The analyst recalled that the USSR's 25-year rent free lease of the base, signed in 1979, was offered in connection with the Sino-Vietnamese War, which broke out earlier that year. Today, the pretense of 'containing China' no longer exists, at least as far as Moscow is concerned.

    "In any case, nobody is going to just offer up their territory to us; both Cuba and Vietnam will need something in return. For Hanoi, Russian presence would be necessary in the context of its confrontation with China. For Havana – ditto, but for the US. But Washington may be able to outbid us, or make these countries an offer they can't refuse."

    Sergei Ermakov, a senior expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, emphasized that for decades, up to and even including 2014, Moscow stayed silent about the prospects of reopening the Lourdes facility, given the 'serious concerns' Washington consistently showed regarding the facility's capabilities. Two years later, the situation has changed dramatically, to paraphrase Peskov.

    "In 2014, the Foreign Ministry and even the president denied plans to return to Cuba; now the situation has changed. We are in a state of confrontation with the US, and Washington has not taken much of an effort to hide the buildup of the components of its strategy to 'contain' us. Accordingly, the deployment of Russian military facilities abroad would break the ring of containment around Russia – allowing us to exit the string of US military bases that surround Russia, and increase the potential for geopolitical negotiation."

    In other words, Ermakov stressed that increased Russian presence would be a positive. Still, given Russia's limited economic capabilities, and the current status of its relations with Havana and Hanoi (which aren't as friendly as they were during the Soviet period), a real return to these countries in the military sense would be possible "only in truncated form."

    "Even in this case, these countries would gain tools enabling them to raise their geopolitical status. Vietnam, for example, is in a situation where it cooperates with Russia on the one hand, and tries to balance between the US and China on the other. In this regard, a buildup of Russian capability in the framework of 'joint efforts to enhance maritime security'…would be a plus for Hanoi."

    As for the US, Ermakov suggested that their diplomatic opportunities to block Russia are presently very limited, due to the upcoming elections. "As for their military-technical capabilities, everything would depend on how our intentions are translated to reality, and how much we are willing to invest in these projects. Here everything really depends on Moscow, because the US is not ready for a serious confrontation" (over these bases).

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    Tags:
    expert commentary, military expert, expert analysis, Lourdes SIGINT station, Dmitry Peskov, Nikolai Pankov, Cam Ranh Bay, China, United States, Vietnam, Cuba, Russia
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