For anyone with Cold War–era naval experience, it’s déjà-vu all over again. Russia has announced its intention, long suspected by Western observers, to improve its forward naval base at Tartus, Syria, and increase its support capacity for warships. During the Soviet era, the base at Tartus was in constant use, but only a handful of brief warship visits have been made there since 1991. Soviet reconnaissance aircraft also used to fly regularly from a nearby airbase and coastal- and air-defense missiles were installed to protect the Soviet-navy assets. Now Russia’s remaining aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, has visited twice in the past year: in September after the invasion of Georgia and in January during Operation Cast Lead.
The pretext for upgrading Tartus is Russia’s involvement in anti-piracy operations off Somalia and the need for better regional support. Russian sources confirmed pursuing options in Yemen and Libya as well, where the Soviet navy also once maintained facilities. Muammar Qaddafi reportedly announced his willingness to resume duties as host during an October visit to Moscow, his first in 23 years. A Russian delegation discussed naval facilities with Yemen the same month. Further west, in May 2009 Russia concluded its largest ever post-Soviet arms deal with Algeria — which also used to serve as a Cold War base for the Soviet navy.
Moscow is not neglecting the port that once served as the Soviet navy’s most substantial forward base: Tivat, on the Adriatic coast of the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro. Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, a close associate of Vladimir Putin (and famous for his alleged presence at a yacht party for John McCain’s 70th birthday), is investing millions to refurbish Tivat’s port, with the announced purpose of turning Tivat into “Monaco on the Adriatic.” Deripaska’s growing ownership of major Montenegrin industries is at least as important. Russia is positioning itself — quietly, given the continuing NATO/IFOR presence in the Balkans — to use Montenegro for both investment and force basing.
The Russians are making the most of the anti-piracy pretext to reestablish bases on the seas around the Middle East (including at least one location, Libya, that is inconvenient for forces operating off Somalia). In conjunction with Syria’s proximity to the Suez Canal, the old Soviet facility on Yemen’s Socotra Island, at the eastern entrance to the Gulf of Aden, brackets the entire choke point between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Where Russian bases go, coastal- and air-defense missiles — as well as arms deals — follow. With Iran also establishing a base on the Red Sea, it is not only Israel that should be concerned about these strategic movements — and not only Israel that should be ensuring a higher naval profile in the region or pursuing a policy designed to keep the coastlines of this key global choke point neutral or friendly.