Giancarlo Elia Valori
On December 14, 2020, Russia signed an agreement with Sudan to establish its first naval outpost in Africa. A few days ago (precisely on February 28) a Russian warship, namely the frigate Admiral Grigorovič, entered Port Sudan.
Pursuant to the agreement, the Russian Federation’s armed forces will establish a naval base in Sudan that can accommodate four ships and a staff of 300 units. It will also be able to deploy nuclear-powered ships. The agreement stipulates that Russia can transfer “any necessary military equipment, ammunition and material’. The base (north of Port Sudan) will operate under Russian jurisdiction for 25 years and its use can be extended for another ten years.
According to Admiral Vladimir Petrovič Komoedov, former commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Sudan is located in an important Red Sea region. The opening of a logistic support point for the Russian Navy in Sudan will strengthen Russia’s presence in North Africa and the Middle East and help ships carry out military and economic missions in the Red Sea.
Since the time of Tsarina Catherine II (1729-62-96), Russia has always been very keen to find suitable military bases abroad. Russia’s huge territory limits the outward projection of its military power, especially in the naval field.
Due to the extremely limited number of seaports (in proportion to the length of the coastline) and to the long distance, together with the freezing of the sea in winter and other issues, it is extremely difficult to coordinate and make the different important fleets cooperate with each other: once a war has broken out, it is easy to be defeated by the enemy.
This shortcoming became apparent in the Crimean War (1853-56) and in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). In view of improving the geopolitical dilemma, the establishment of naval bases in ‘warm sea ports’ became a priority.
Since the 1960s – especially after the defeat of the Vlora base suffered at the hands of the Albanians in 1961 – the Soviet Union began to step up its military and economic assistance to Third World countries, as well as to vigorously develop its Navy and seek to establish military bases abroad, and even intervene directly in military conflicts in some regions.
During the heyday of the Soviet Navy, overseas military bases were spread all over the world. There were 31 naval bases in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (later unified in 1976), Laos, Cambodia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Libya, Egypt, Cuba and Nicaragua, Peru and other countries.
With the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, Russia’s economic recession meant that the country was no longer able to maintain huge military bases abroad. In desperation, most overseas military bases were abandoned and only a few overseas military facilities in the former Soviet republics, such as the radar bases in Belarus and Azerbaijan, were maintained, while the naval base in Tartus, Syria, was reduced to a material technical support station.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, under the pressure of NATO’s eastward expansion, Russia began to re-establish military bases and military installations in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), such as the aforementioned Belarus and Ukraine in Eastern Europe, and Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Caucasus.
After Putin came to power, already as Prime Minister on August 8, 1999, the CIS countries became the priority direction of Russia’s diplomatic development, which gradually re-established military bases in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Judging by the current trend, with the gradual recovery of national power following the collapse of Yeltsin’s era – when it was thought that the Third Rome should become a U.S. colony – Russia’s strategic retreat has essentially ended and the Sarmatian country has become more proactive in its global set-up.
Unlike the proliferation of the Soviet era, Russia now focuses its energies on two strategic hotspots: the Arctic and the Mediterranean. Due to climate change, global warming and ice shrinking, sailing time in the Arctic Ocean is shortening, the area is expanding and the difficulties of developing Arctic resources are also disappearing. The strategic position of the Arctic Ocean is becoming increasingly important.
Russia is the country with the most Arctic coastline, so it has faster and larger movements. From the viewpoint of building the relevant facilities, in 2014 Russia completed the construction of the Arctic military base on Kotel’nyj Island (New Siberian Islands). Located at the northernmost point of the world, the base can make a variety of combat vehicles take off and land, including long-range strategic bombers. It is the largest Russian military base in the Arctic.
As from 2018, Russia has begun large-scale renovation and expansion of airports and military bases in the Arctic region and plans to restart thirteen former Soviet-era air bases. So far, Russia has built over 400 military facilities on the Arctic islands of New Land (Novaja Zemlja), Franz Joseph Land, Northern Land and New Siberia.
The Mediterranean has also an extremely important strategic significance for Russia. Russia has had a strong attachment to the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years. Since the Black Sea is an almost closed sea area with only one strait connected to the Mediterranean, it is very vulnerable to blockades by other countries during wars. The tsars hoped to gain access close to the strait to ensure safe passage. Hence the various tsar-sultan clashes.
In 1960, the first U.S. strategic nuclear missile submarine, namely the George Washington, went into service and caught the Soviets on the hop because the Polaris A1 strategic missile (with a range of 2,600 kilometres) carried by that submarine could hit Russia directly from the Mediterranean. Therefore, the Soviet Union had to deploy its naval force in the Mediterranean to effectively expel U.S. strategic missiles and nuclear submarines and ensure the security of Moscow.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Navy established the Fifth Operations Squadron (the Mediterranean Fleet, disbanded on December 31, 1992), which relied on the Syrian port of Tartus to provide equipment and technology to strengthen its control of the Mediterranean region. In recent years, Russia has renovated and modernised the port of Tartus in Syria to facilitate the docking of Russian military vessels.
Currently, the port of Tartus is Russia’s only foothold in the Mediterranean. The base is located on the eastern coast of the sea and is the gateway to the Near and Middle East. Its geostrategic position is crucial. Owning the port of Tartus greatly expands the range of the Russian Navy’s operations in the Mediterranean.
Not only does it break the U.S. Sixth Fleet’s siege and blockade of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, but it also helps Russia intervene in Near and Middle East’s affairs.
From 2010 to 2012, Russia carried out large-scale construction work in Tartus to upgrade it to a modern base where cruisers, aircraft carriers and other large warships could dock. In 2013, Russia reorganised the Pyataya Eskadra (the Russian Navy’s operational unit in the Mediterranean) in response to the situation prevailing in Syria. After the Syrian government called on Russia in 2015, the Russian army immediately entered Syria to assist Syrian government forces in the fighting to support the former allies and to strengthen the base in Tartus. For Russia, it is clear that once the port of Tartus is lost, the Russian army may be trapped, with no way out in the Black Sea.
Besides Tartus, Russia’s military cooperation with Egypt has also developed rapidly in recent years. Especially after Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian war, the two countries have regained the tradition of Soviet-Egyptian friendship dating back to Nasser’s time and military technology and security cooperation have continued.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France
President of International World Group