Saturday, November 27, 2010

New Russian Navy bases: threat or opportunity?

Russia is eying the addition of a handful of new naval bases, or more accurately, provisioning depots, at a number of points around the globe. At the moment it appears Yemen and Libya are in the running for new bases, with more possible in other states -- locations mentioned by the state-run Itar-TASS news wire service.

Dmitri Medvedev, Russia' president, refused to go into specifics after he broached the matter, although it's already known that Russia plans to overhaul its existing base in Tartus, Syria, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and just cut a gas price deal with Ukraine in exchange for a 25-year lease for the Russian base at Sevastopol.

To be fair, the current Russian basing is the smallest global footprint Russia has had for some time, if you take Soviet history into account. At one point, the Soviet Union had bases scattered around the world: Cuba, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Ethiopia, Yemen, Angola, Guinea, Libya, Tunisia, Yugoslavia and Vietnam. All those bases closes in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union twenty years ago except for bases in Vietnam and Cuba, which the Russians shuttered eight years ago.

So how should the United States approach this basing expansion? Is this a threat or an opportunity?

It would be easy to see this as a threat. Russia restarted long-range air patrols in 2007 and its Navy conducted a 2008 visit to South America, including some exercises. Of course, it must be noted that these actions are much, much less intense than those conducted during the Soviet days. However, it does show a desire to project at least the appearance of force and capability on a global scale.

Yet the Russians do bring skills and useful forces to the table, and are re-emerging as a partner in Afghanistan and European missile defense in cooperation with NATO. And it seems clear Russia is interested in adding new bases beyond a need for simple logistics. Said Medvedev: The basing will assist "complex diplomatic and political work in those countries."

Russia's proposed basing in Yemen is particularly interesting since the Russians have a history in the south of that country that is still remembered there. In addition, Russia is a major arms seller to Yemen and holds much of its debt.

Yemeni forces in the south of Yemen are seeking to secede and are currently embroiled in a struggle with central government forces. Russia could play a unique peacekeeping role if it developed a greater presence in the state. In addition, Yemen's ongoing fight against al-Qaida in the country is an increasing focus of US counter-terrorism efforts and the country could provide a new place for Russia and the US to cooperate.

Allowing for this kind of cooperation will require the US to swallow some of its pride. Yet the US can still be comfortable that the Russian Navy is still very much in a rebuilding phase and their involvement in some new and troubled areas of the world might bring positive Russian political involvement in those areas and provide an arena for cooperation.

While US politicians bicker over the ratification of the new START arms control and verification treaty, a mature US response to Russia's new bases may open a new line of communication between the global superpower and an emerging military force intent on restoring its pride of place in the world.

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