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.
Meanwhile, Russia's deputy defense minister said last week that Moscow is considering restoring Soviet-era military bases in Vietnam and Cuba to assert its global presence. Moscow currently enjoys privileged access to Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay, known as the best deep-water port in the Asia-Pacific region because of its long protective peninsula and deep harbors. But that may be as good as it gets for Russia. Situated along the chokepoint between the Pacific and Indian oceans, Cam Ranh Bay occupies a vital sea lane in the South China Sea and serves as a critical component of Vietnam's maritime defense. Hanoi will not allow any single power to dominate the base and has instead used it to build relationships with multiple foreign navies, recently opening the port to Japan, Singapore and France. (As part of its increasing military cooperation with Vietnam, the United States has also shown interest in gaining better access to Cam Ranh Bay.) This strategy has allowed Vietnam to keep its options open and to position itself as a strategic partner in the region, counterbalancing Beijing's aggression. Regardless of its designs on the port, Russia will continue to be just one of many countries with access to Cam Ranh Bay.
As we learned during the Cold War, Cuba is another strategic place to plant a foreign military base. It has taken Washington decades to normalize its relations with Havana as a long-term insurance strategy to keep the island out of adversarial foreign hands. Consequently, Russia's talk of reopening its old military facilities in Cuba must be taken with a grain of salt. Now that Venezuela's economy is collapsing, Havana's quest to find a new source of energy shipments and economic patronage will become even more urgent. Cuba is still counting on the United States to get it out of this rut by lifting the trade embargo, a prospect Havana will be reluctant to jeopardize, especially when Russia cannot be expected to subsidize it as it did during the Cold War. Still, Havana can use the rumors of Russia returning to Cuba to prod the United States into following through with the normalization process.
Similarly, Egypt can play the Russian card to grab the United States' attention. The Egyptian president's spokesperson has already denied the Izvestia report on a developing deal for Russia to refurbish its Mediterranean air base, saying the "establishment" of any foreign base defies Egypt's policies. At the same time, Cairo has a pattern of invoking the Russian threat to reinforce its military partnership with the United States. In the wake of its 2013 military coup, for instance, Egypt stepped up joint training operations and defense deals with Moscow when Washington publicly distanced itself from Cairo. After enough time had passed, the United States predictably resumed its military aid to the strategic Arab state.
Egypt can also use the discussions with Russia to bargain with its Saudi patrons, who are frustrated by Cairo's zero-tolerance attitude toward Islamists and lack of cooperation on Syria. Riyadh rebuked Cairo and delayed delivering critical petroleum aid after Egypt voted in favor of Russia's position on a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria. In return, Egypt can threaten to move closer to the Russian orbit, but it lacks the luxury to be selective about its partners; Egypt still depends heavily on U.S. and Saudi aid. That will not stop Russia from trying to augment its military relationship with Cairo, though. Over the past two years, satellite imagery has revealed construction at the Sidi Barrani air base, including efforts to resurface runways and add infrastructure. Sidi Barrani has been reportedly in use as a waypoint for Egyptian and Emirati aircraft for operations over Libya, but it appears that Russia is also trying to revive its stake in the base.
Beneath the showy headlines about Russia's basing activities, the reality remains: A base's effect on a region or alliance structure is a function of the size of its infrastructure, the number of forces allocated there, the amount of money a foreign military is willing to devote to it and the terms of the agreement.