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10/14/16

Geopoliitical maneuvering: Russia Strives to Cover Its Bases

 Moscow is looking to extend its global military reach. Citing Defense and Foreign Ministry officials, Russian newspaper Izvestia reported Monday that Cairo and Moscow are negotiating a deal that would grant Russia access to military facilities in Egypt and refurbish a former Soviet air base in the Mediterranean town of Sidi Barrani. In fact, Russia has been talking a lot lately about basing rights in strategic spots around the globe, from Egypt to Vietnam to Cuba to Iran. The intent behind these explorations is fairly straightforward: When locked in a multi-theater confrontation with the United States, what better way for the Russian bear to trample the U.S. security umbrella than with a growing military footprint?

Basing can be a misleading term, however, conjuring Cold War-era assumptions of permanent basing on a large scale. People could easily conclude that new bases mean major shifts in Russia's ability to project power or in host countries' strategic alliances. After all, hosting another country on sovereign territory is no small favor. But all basing arrangements are not created equal. A state can take the route of Japan or South Korea, which host troops from various branches of the U.S. military in large numbers, tilting an entire region's strategic balance in one direction. Alternatively, a state can host another country's ship at port a few times a year for repairs and refueling, a relationship that does not necessarily imply big swings in force projection or alliances.

That said, strategic military relationships can grow from even seemingly inconsequential arrangements if the geopolitical climate is ripe for it and if both parties can find enough mutual benefit. Take Russia's Tartus port, for example. For many years, it languished as a backwater repair and refueling depot on the Mediterranean Sea with little or no strategic relevance. But the Syrian civil war — and Russia's deepening involvement in it — raised Tartus to new levels of prominence for its role as a logistical hub critical to supporting loyalist and Russian forces. Though Tartus has not yet risen to the status of a Mediterranean naval power projection hub, it represents a burgeoning dependency between Damascus and Moscow and could evolve into a more strategic naval node. Last week, the Russian government approved permanent basing for its troops in Syria, in keeping with its plans to make Tartus a more robust and permanent port.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Russia may have to check its basing ambitions. Though Iran relies heavily on Russia's support in the proxy battle it is waging in Syria, Tehran is not about to welcome its troops onto Iranian territory in any permanent or semi-permanent fashion. In August, the Islamic republic revealed its sensitivities to foreign militaries claiming base rights when Russian aircraft flying sorties over Syria from Iran's Hamadan air base incited outrage among Iranian leaders. The Russian public relations coup was short-lived; Iranian officials were turned off by Moscow's "ungentlemanly" grandstanding and publicly rescinded its access to the air base. As the Iranian defense minister put it, the arrangement was not basing but "merely a form of assistance whereby we provided them with the facility to land, takeoff and refuel … a kind of operational cooperation." Despite Russia's attempts to pressure Iran into enhancing Hamadan's infrastructure to accommodate more bombers, Tehran will be wary of offering even token assistance to Moscow, especially since Russia already has a more substantial basing presence nearby in Syria.

Russia Strives to Cover Its Bases | Stratfor

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