The Russian Navy’s possible return to Vietnam became the latest military rumor floated in the media last week. If it happens, it won’t have exactly the same purposes as in 1979, and it probably won’t be on the same scale. But it will be part and parcel of the issue of being, or wanting to remain, a naval power. Moscow might have to ask itself if it still is one, or will be one in the future.
On Wednesday, former Navy Main Staff Chief, Admiral Viktor Kravchenko told Interfaks the Navy is proposing to reestablish a material-technical support base (PMTO or ПМТО) at Cam Ranh.
The news service quotes Kravchenko:
“Without a system of bases for deployment, full support of Navy ships in distant waters is problematic. Navy surface ships and submarines need repair, resupply, and crew rest to fulfill a wide range of missions on the world’s oceans. If as before Russia considers itself a naval power, the reestablishment and creation of basing points like Cam Ranh is unavoidable.”
A Defense Ministry source told Nezavisimaya gazeta that:
“The [Navy] Glavkomat has finished work on the documents considering and substantiating the need to reestablish a basing point to support Russian ships in the Asia-Pacific region. If there is a political decision, then the Navy is prepared to reestablish a working base in three years.”
The base would support ships on antipiracy missions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, according to the source.
The Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee’s Subcommittee on Military-Technical Cooperation, former Captain First Rank Mikhail Nenashev told Interfaks:
“The rent for a naval base at Cam Ranh, in the end, would cost Russia less than regular support of combatants on the world’s oceans using auxiliary ships, tankers, and repair ships.”
“Reestablishing a base at Cam Ranh would help strengthen and develop cooperation with Vietnam and the Asia-Pacific region countries not only in military, but in many others spheres of activity.”
Izvestiya says, Moscow doesn’t intend to return to a Cold War-style global military confrontation with Washington – it has not the forces, means, or desire for it – but the ‘Cam Ranh initiative’ shows that a gradual reanimation of specific military bases abroad could happen.
According to Newsru.com and Vremya novostey, in 1979, Moscow and Hanoi signed a 25-year agreement by which the Soviet Pacific Fleet’s 17th Squadron gained access to Cam Ranh. Vietnam allowed the Soviet Navy to base 10 surface ships, 8 submarines with a submarine support ship, and 6 auxiliaries at the port. Later, the 922nd PMTO was established at the Vietnamese port. The Soviets had POL storage, an ASW and missile armaments base and technical service unit, a Naval Infantry sub-unit, and an air regiment at Cam Ranh.
The base was initially free, but Hanoi asked for $300 million in rent in 1998. In 2001, Moscow decided not to extend its agreement with Vietnam, and the last Russian elements departed Cam Ranh in mid-2002. The decisionmaking around the Cam Ranh withdrawal (likewise for Lourdes, Cuba) is anything but clear-cut. But then President Putin probably made the decision, reportedly against the advice of many senior uniformed officers, in an effort to save money for the military at home, and to make nice with Washington. Former high-ranking General Staff officer Leonid Ivashov claims the $300 million rent, at least, shouldn’t have been an issue since it could have been written off against Vietnam’s $10 billion debt to Moscow.
Prime Minister Putin’s December 2009 Hanoi visit and major arms deal, including six proyekt 636 diesel submarines, with Vietnam may have started movement on a return to Cam Ranh. Defense Minister Serdyukov went to Hanoi in February and told Rossiyskaya gazeta the Vietnamese were very interested in constructing a Navy repair plant and Russian help with naval logistics. However, Serdyukov claimed the Vietnamese didn’t propose anything about Cam Ranh. But NG’s Vladimir Mukhin speculates a deal for a renewed Russian presence at the base might be inked during President Medvedev’s late October trip to Vietnam.
Izvestiya quotes independent military analyst Aleksandr Khramchikhin:
“Theoretically, I welcome the reestablishment of a Navy base at Cam Ranh. For Russia, it is a very composite and most useful facility abroad. Without it, the operations of the Pacific Fleet are impeded. Also very little remains of the Pacific Fleet. This fact, however, doesn’t change the usefulness of the base at Cam Ranh. Such a step could, of course, create certain foreign policy difficulties for Russia. I suppose the U.S. and China will express dissatisfaction, but this will hardly have any real effect. As concerns Vietnam, it would pay to view it as our most important ally. Russia largely cast it aside after the collapse of the USSR. This was a gross mistake worth correcting.”
It’s worth recalling Khramchikhin may view Vietnam through a slightly Sinophobic prism.
Talking to NG, Duma Deputy, and former Black Sea Fleet commander, Vladimir Komoyedov worries there won’t be anything to deploy at Cam Ranh:
“The Pacific Fleet, whose ships need to control the waters of South-East Asia, has hardly received any new units for the last two decades. And what will we deploy to Cam Ranh?”