The geography of Russia necessitates a forward presence for their Navy. Russia stretches over 7000 miles from east to west and comprises 11 time zones. As a northern country, its fleet locations are distant from world shipping lanes, subject to icing and are vulnerable to choke points and blockades. It is this situation that causes Russia to have increased requirements for equipment, stores and ship repair facilities and therefore a need for forward base support facilities for its four fleets.
With this in mind, it becomes apparent how Russia's requirement for warm weather naval bases to compensate for geographic liabilities shapes a foreign policy that can never by fully divorced from relations with Third World countries. This analysis may be somewhat sterile given current circumstances in Russia.
It is apparent that geography places Russia at a distinct maritime disadvantage compared to the United States. Russians must deal with often inhospitable climates, restricted access to the world's oceans, and isolation from major sea lanes and strategically important regions. Its fleets are separated by thousands of miles of long, sinuous and vulnerable supply routes. Moreover, its somewhat limited access to foreign bases and reliance on the vagaries of Third World politics further impedes its naval strategies. All of these geographic liabilities are major determinates in the formulation and continued evolution of Russian naval strategies, out-of-area operations, and foreign policy.
The Russian interest in forward operating locations is a bit more complicated. Soviet naval architecture was focused on the "battle of the first blow" - under the theory that nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Americans would be brilliant but brief. Soviet warship design [along with most other Soviet military paraphanalia] is rugged, but not terribly reliable. The Indian Navy discovered this to their dismay, when they acquired Soviet ships which they tried to operate to Royal Navy standards, producing frequent engineering casualties. In a navy of conscript sailors, engineering repairs are conducated by officers, who naturally seek to avoid such greasy duty by keeping the ship at anchor. During the Cold War, the Soviet Mediterranean Squadron spent most of its time at deep anchor, rather than underway.
The Russian Navy has long memories of the catastrophe of Tsushima, when the Russian fleet arrived after thousands of miles at sea. Lacking a global chain of coaling stations, the Russians were rather the worse for wear and tear, and the Japanese made short work of them. The Russian Navy will not make this mistake again. It will make other mistakes. A century later, Russian maritime logisticas are not greatly improved. Underway replenishment capabiltities are paltry, and underway replenishment skills are feeble. In contrast, underway replenishment is a hallmark of American sea power.
In the 21st Century, downrange Russian naval "bases" are not great centers of naval power, such as Norfolk, Pearl Harbor, Singapore, or Rabaul. The vaunted Russian "base" at Tartus in Syria is little more than a single shoreside pier. But forward deployments of the Russian Navy are a highly visible means of asserting that "the bear is back".
By early 2014 Russia was negotiating with several countries in Latin America the creation of maintenance facilities for ships of the Russian Navy, not military bases, announced Russian Deputy Defense Anatoli Antonov. "Reports that Russia has alleged plans to install base military in several Latin American countries and, in general, is preparing for a 'military expansion' in that region do not coincide with reality " , Antonov said at a press conference covered by the RIA Novosti agency.
He said that these rumors are spread by the "opposition media" who have "triggered a war of information in Venezuela and Nicaragua". "The goal is to defame the governments of those countries to question the mutually beneficial nature of military and military-technical cooperation with Russia , " he said Antonov. He noted that the military and military-technical cooperation with Latin American countries is aimed at everything to maintain stability and international security and such international agreements is common practice that drives the development of infrastructure and promotes economic progress of countries.
Referring to the maintenance centers said that intensify its naval presence in the Latin American continent, Russia seeks above all to create conditions to simplify the procedures for entry of its vessels in ports of the region. "Because of the great distance from the coast of Russia, we are also interested refueled food and water, and in some cases be able to make small and medium repairs ships" , Antonov said. He added that with these the Russian government was negotiating with its partners in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.
Russia's move to restore former Soviet military bases abroad is in line with the country's new 2016 Maritime Doctrine and aims "to increase the autonomy of Russia's naval presence in the World Ocean," according to RIA Novosti political analyst Alexander Khrolenko. He believes that Russia's foreign military bases are in sync with the country's news Maritime Doctrine and help "boost the autonomy of the Russian naval presence in the World Ocean."
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Nikolay Pankov said on 15 October 2016 that Moscow will establish a permanent naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus, home to a Russian Navy maintenance and support facility which was established by the Soviet Union in 1977. Pankov also said that the Russian Defense Ministry was looking into reestablishing Russian bases in Cuba and Vietnam. In addition, media reports cited Russia's plans to return to a former Soviet air force base in the Egyptian city of Sidi Barrani.
Referring to Russia, Khrolenko explained that the naval bases abroad ensure the safety of the country's major sea lanes and increase the navy's combat capability by bringing missiles closer to the strategic areas of the potential enemy. According to him, the naval bases add to the more effective deployment of warships across the World Ocean, helping to focus on "potentially dangerous areas and crisis regions." "The foreign naval bases do not only indicate the status of the country, but also contribute to its sustainable economic growth and the safe development of ocean resources. These bases can be called a military and diplomatic instrument to strengthen national and international security," he pointed out.
Khrolenko recalled that since the end of the last century, Russia has pursued peaceful policies. Meanwhile, a significant proportion of US and NATO military operations were conducted without the UN's approval, including operations in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. "Obviously, Russia should rely on its navy and aerospace forces rather than the West's favor when it comes to the struggle for a brighter future," Khrolenko said.
In addition, the permanent presence of the Russian Navy in the Mediterranean is something that is endorsed by Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, according to him. "In the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Russia is successfully strengthening its military cooperation with the naval forces of India and China," he added. Khrolenko specifically drew attention to the fact that the navy remains the basis of Russia's maritime potential and that naval activity is related to the top state priorities. "Russia's new Maritime Doctrine underscores the importance of the country's adequate and permanent naval presence in the World Ocean. In this sense, the naval bases increase the autonomy of such a presence," he pointed out.
Editor-in-chief of National Defense Magazine Igor Korotchenko described Russia's decision to establish a full-scale base in Tartus as a "powerful move." He said in October 2-16 that first and foremost, the base will help to protect Russia's national interests and improve the country's geopolitical standing in the Middle East. He also said that the base in Tartus will provide a "reliable support area" to the Russian naval forces deployed to the region. "A full-scale base will help to improve logistical and technical support for our naval assets," he explained.
Along with the Hmeymim airbase in nearby Latakia, Syria, the base in Tartus "will enhance Russia's foreign and defense policies," Korotchenko said, adding that they will also help to "neutralize any threats." Russian introduced its new naval doctrine in June 2015. According to the document, Crimea, the Arctic and the Atlantic and as well as cooperation between Russia and China in the Pacific are becoming key priorities for Russia. According to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the main reasons for adopting amendments to Russia's maritime doctrine of 2001 are "the changes of international affairs" and the consolidation of Russia as a maritime power.
A Soviet naval force maintained an Indian Ocean presence for many years. It was formed to provide Russia a vehicle to respond in the area in the event the Suez Canal was closed, an act which would prevent timely response by units operating from the Mediterranean or Black Seas. The cost of maintaining facilities is high in the region and Russia (as well as any other nation) will always be at the mercy of political instability in the realm.
A distinct disadvantage the Indian Ocean Sqaudron experienced was that units were at the extreme end of the Russian naval supply chain, with long lines from the Pacific or Black Sea Fleet bases. In addition there are numerous choke points along the way. In the west, these include the aforementioned Middle East choke points, while in the east, they include those noted in the section on the Pacific Fleet, as well as the more proximate restrictions through the Indonesian archipelago. Most significantly, this includes the dominant Strait of Malacca between the Malay peninsula and the island of Sumatra, and the lesser Sundra and Lombock Straits, lying at the western and eastern ends, respectively, of Java.
The U.S. Naval base at Diego Garcia, whose central location in the Indian Ocean acts somewhat like a "control point" for all maritime forces operating in East Africa, South, and Southeast Asia.
Soviet naval presence in West Africa was always multipurpose. In recent years, the near continuous presence of one or two minor combatants off Morocco and Western Sahara was for the protection of a Russian fishing fleet. Their patrols ranged from the Spanish Canary Islands (off Morocco) southward to Conakry, the capital of Guinea. On average, patrols lasted approximately six months. Russia also conducted port visits to "show the flag" and strengthen influence in the region.
During the Angolan Civil War (late 1970's - early 1980's) the government was militarily supported indirectly by the USSR via Cuba. During that time, the USSR was granted port privileges at Luanda, Lobito and Mocamedes, Angola. However, they were not permitted to build any permanent naval facilities in these ports. During a six month deployment to the West African coast, the Russian platforms had to be replenished by visiting auxiliaries. Since the end of the Civil War, the withdrawal of Cuban forces, the collapse of the USSR, and economic problems at home, Russia has not been able to maintain a constant vigil in the Equatorial Atlantic of western Africa.
Russian naval presence in the Caribbean had almost a 40 year history based upon Soviet influence and ties with Cuba. Operations ranged throughout the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic and provided a base for political support in such countries as Nicaragua, Guyana, Suriname, Trinidad and St. Lucia. Surface and submarine units paid particular attention to U.S. naval forces based in the area (e.g., Guantanamo Bay, Puerto Rico) and on regional shipping traffic. Since the bulk of imported U.S. oil flows through the Caribbean, its many straits, channels, and passages are of strategic importance.
From the southwest, access is managed at the Panama Canal. To the north, the Gulf of Mexico is controlled by the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba and by the Straits of Florida between the U.S. and Cuba. Moving eastward through the Greater Antilles several key waterways emerge. The Windward Passage separates Cuba and Hispanola (the island comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic); separating Hispanola and Puerto Rico through the Lesser Antilles lies no less than eight major passages. These choke points provide ample opportunity to control maritime movement in the Caribbean theater.
With the collapse of the Soviet state in 1990, Russian influence in Cuba has been severely diminished. While ties still remain and while naval facilities and intelligence collection activities are still available to Russia, recent efforts have been substantially reduced from their Cold War levels. Yet, a Russian "presence" is still visible at such sites as Cienfuegos on the southwest coast and in Havana and nearby San Antonio do los Banos.
One must recognize, however, that as a base of operations, Cuba does present limitations from a naval geographic perspective. A quick glance at the map will demonstrate its position "behind" a series of U.S. and Allied controlled outer islands, as well as its position at the southern end of the U.S. controlled North Atlantic Ocean.
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