Russia to Build Naval Base in Cuba: An Intelligence Perspective

By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes

On Thursday, July 26, news outlets reported that Russia announced intentions to build military bases in Vietnam, the Seychelles, and Cuba. The source of the news was an interview given by Russian Vice Admiral Victor Chirkov to the Russian IRA Novosti news network.

Map courtesy of the CIA

The Russian Defense Ministry subsequently denied that Chirkov had ever discussed anything about foreign bases and pointed out that the Russian Navy would not be in charge of any foreign base agreements that Russia would make with any foreign nation.

Today, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeated the denial at a press conference in Moscow. Given that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has so loudly voiced his intentions of returning Russia to its former military might, presumably with equipment that works this time, most foreign observers were not surprised by IRA Novosti’s report.

The idea of bases in the Seychelles, Vietnam, and Cuba is hardly new. Russia previously maintained bases in these locations until financial constraints forced them to close after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

When questioned about any military base deals with Russia, Vietnam’s president Truong Tan Sang said that Vietnam has no intention of allowing foreign bases in his country. He said Vietnam would make the port of Cam Ranh available to all countries, but that Vietnam would help Russia by allowing for some facilities to be built to aid military cooperation between Vietnam and Russia.

Is that clear to everyone? No Russian bases in Vietnam ever, just some military facilities for Russian ships to use. The distinction is important, I’m sure . . . to someone . . . somewhere.

The desire for a base in Vietnam is understandable these days. Besides having had a base there previously and wanting closer relations with Vietnam, Russia’s inability to affect China’s current attempt to expand its borders across the South Pacific has to be terribly frustrating to a man like Putin. Vietnam is genuinely concerned about China’s new military aggression and wouldn’t mind a little help from its old communist brothers from up north, even if they are all stinking capitalist brothers now.

As for the Seychelles, some folks might wonder why anyone other than Seychelles sailors would want a port there. The answer is that a port in the Seychelles would give Russia a base of operations for refueling, resupply, and repairs when they operate ships in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean matters because that’s where the Suez canal and the Arabian Sea lead to, and that means tons of oil are shipped through the Indian Ocean to many destinations, including China.

The case of a Russian base reopening in Cuba is somewhat more irksome for the USA. Cuba is 90 miles from Florida. Part of the resolution to the 1962 “Cuban Missile Crisis” was that the Soviet Union agreed to never again bring nuclear weapons to Cuba. If Russian capital ships port in Cuba, then there will be Russian nuclear weapons in Cuba. If asked about it, Putin might say that those ships have no nuclear weapons (which no one would believe) and that he is not bound by agreements made by the old USSR.

So far, Putin has said neither of those things and isn’t directly responding to the issue. He is still busy with the question, “What fleet would we send to those new bases?”

At present, the Russian Navy is still suffering from a lack of money and is unable to put a credible deep sea fleet in the water. Putin claims that will change, and he has been increasing the budgets of all of the Russian military branches, including the navy. Even with Putin’s stifling influence on the Russian economy and its ongoing “brain drain” of many of Russia’s brightest young people, as long as oil and gas prices remain high, Russia will continue to make huge profits from energy sales to European nations.

So what shall we guess at as Putin’s intentions? Putin can’t be happy about events in Syria. Once his intelligence service informed him that the Assad regime would likely collapse, he had to reverse his stance. After loudly proclaiming Russian support for Assad (and for the continued use of the Russian fleet’s one foreign base beyond the Ukraine), Putin had to pretend to suddenly claim the moral high ground and hedge his bets against Syria.

Being Putin can’t be easy. Whenever he thinks about it, he can’t help but be aware that no reasonable Russian would put up with having him in charge unless they absolutely had to do so. He knows that his fellow corporate giants in Russia would love an opportunity to replace him with someone less expensive and less powerful. Putin can only get so much mileage out of the “daring Putin” staged photo shoots that portray him as a macho tough guy. Always in the market for any help he can get, Putin is becoming more willing to play the imaginary Cold War card.

There’s nothing like a national emergency to get people to tolerate a reduction in freedom and a lousy economy. (We’ll write about the D.H.S. some other day). Well okay, an efficient and obedient police state apparatus helps as well, but Putin’s thugs aren’t quite back up to North Korean or Cuban standards yet, and he can’t resist working on his mythology a bit in the mean time.

So while Putin has no urgent military need for a naval base on the US doorstep, and though he can hardly afford to waste cash on one, the chance to remain in the international limelight and to stir up some nationalistic sentiment in Russia is just too hard to pass up. So how do bright young Russians feel about all this? I can’t speak for them. The next time you see one moving into Western Europe, ask him.

In the short term, none of Russia’s imperialist dreams mean much to us in the West. How much it means to us in the future will depend on how well Putin can run the Russian economy, and how much of a Russian Navy he can build and put to sea.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.

You may contact them in blog comments, on Twitter at@piperbayard, on Facebook at Piper Bayard, or by email at BH@bayardandholmes.com.

© 2012 Jay Holmes. All content on this page is protected by copyright. If you would like to use any part of this, please contact us at the above links to request permission.

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16 comments on “Russia to Build Naval Base in Cuba: An Intelligence Perspective

  1. tomwisk says:

    Russia has shown in the past an ability to rearm at the expense of nonessential programs (feeding the populace, aiding impoverished farmers). Putin has and will ignore socialist principles to attain a military goal. The question is, will the military allow him to usurp their posittion. He may plead ignorance but his background indicates that he is never underinformed.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi tomwisk, I think you are right about Putin. So far he has been very clever in preventing cooperation against his rule amongst Russian military leaders. For now Putin is able to keep the FSB and SVR intelligence and security services loyal to him by assuring that they enjoy economic and personal privileges that the average Russian can not enjoy. Putin has one great advantage that Stalin never had. Putin has the unobstructed access to a huge share of Russia’s private capitol, and unlike Stalin he has the education and business accumen to use it effectively for his own ends if not for the betterment of Russia.

  2. Dave says:

    Seems like a base in Cuba would have obvious benefits, but given their other pressing military needs (like a working fleet), it seems like they would forgo reopening it for the time being.

    But, using the threat as a cynical means to manipulate domestic (Russian) public support without actually having to pay for it? That makes sense…Putin style.

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Dave. The Cubans want that base even more than the Russian Navy does. They need the income.

      Perhaps we could beat the Cubans to it and lease the Russians a base in New Orleans. Louisiana needs the cash. We could open a Casino and a honey pot resort at the gates of the base, This would make it so much easier to communicate with all the Russian military personnel that have been trying to sell us redundant “secrets”.

      This would also save the Russians from the tremendous expense of building a formidable deep sea Navy. They could just remove the hard to service Russian weapons from their Kirov class cruisers, refurnish them with a pair of fake smoke stacks, bogus side paddles and some gold trim red velvet furniture and run river boat tourist excursions up and down the Mississippi while selling contraband Cuban Cigars. Their are plenty of unemployed entertainers and musicians in Russia, the USA, and Cuba to fill out an impressive schedule of performances for the passengers. The map drawings of these “operations” would look impressive on the Russian news services. It’s a win-win-win for everyone.

  3. Even though I find politics fascinating, and foreign politics far more interesting than my own country’s politics (I’m Australian), I have to say I find Russia’s politics impenetrable and unfathomable. Why people would continue to vote for a guy was a colonel in the KGB is beyond my comprehension. I know he presided over very rapid GDP growth over a decade as PM (see Wikipedia’s article on him). But a former KGB colonel. ?? ?? ?? I’d just as soon go to bed with a funnel-web spider. Would anybody out there with a good grasp of Russian politics want to enlighten me. Anybody who wants to email me via my blog site feel free. (Sorry Piper, am i allowed to say that on your blog?)

    • Piper, perhaps you could delete that post, please, maybe it’s too off the topic. – I’ve emailed Holmes separately.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      You’re fine, Richard. I’d be interested in hearing the answer to that, as well.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi comrade worker Richard. Such terms as “Australian” and “American” are really for us sentimental old worker types. The neuvotycoons like Putin and his pals on Wall Street or in Hong Kong likely don’t trouble themselves much over such distinctions. I won’t claim to be an expert on Russian politics but even the experts are having a hard time getting accurate information about what decision makers in Russia intend or even who the true decision makers are.

      In my view the first task in understanding Russian politics is to assume that Putin has partial police state dictatorial powers. He wants a Stalinist level of authority but he is not there yet. As near as I can tell the last election in Russia was a farce. Putin was able to generate a significant number of votes using the standard “national glory” marketing scheme but not enough to get elected. His judges and police helped by locking up opposition members, and by shutting down internet sites that questioned his divine czarist right to rule the world. As Jessie Jackson supposedly once mumbled in his best “transamerican ghetto drawl” “It don’t matter how many votes you have, it matters who counts the votes.”

      The lessons of Illinois politics have not been lost on Czar Putin. I wonder if Illinois ex-governor Rod Blagojevich has a picture of Putin on his cell wall. How could he not be envious?

      Yes, most Russians are too smart to elect a scoundrel like Putin. It just doesn’t matter right now what “most Russians” want for Russia.

  4. [...] week, a post in Piper Bayard’s blog about Russian naval spying bought back a memory of perhaps the strangest experience I ever had as a [...]

  5. Hi Holmes. The whole Russian base in New Orleans thing sounds like a winner. There would be no shortage of places for their sailors to get drunk and we could rent them a few “hotels” for their booty spies. If we get really lucky we could get the sailors drunk enough that they’d visit their own spies and we wouldn’t have to go to the bother of trying to confuse them with disinformation.

    Cheers!

    • J Holmes says:

      Wow Nigel. having their sailors visit their own honey traps is a step ahead of what i was thinking. I’ve been at this sort of thing for a while so I have to give you some credit for out thinking me on that one.

  6. mliddle says:

    Hello Holmes!
    Once again, I can catch up on world politics and analysis with your keen observations – this time w/Russian’s Putin’s desire to want to stay in the mix of political and economic climate in Vietnam, oil production around the Suez Canal, and trying to get back into Cuba after Russia’s walk away 50 years ago. I get far behind in this region of world news, that I am relieved to have you on my “speed dial!”
    Putin’s actions he is employing to allocate more money to the military and to keep “prized” folks close to him so that Putin can engage in any of his forward goals in the near future seem downright scary. These world actions look like heartless political chess using world leaders whose primary goal is using their infamy to put their reputation in front of the good will of the country.
    I’ll stop my criticism here because they’re more negative than helpful. My comments show more of my fear than a sense of hope coming from the Russian leader.
    Monique

    • J Holmes says:

      Hi Monique. Your sense of fear concerning Putin’s intentions are reasonable. I hope for the sake of the Russian people that some force in Russia (other than another Stalin clone) can derail him.

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