Russia’s Bases Abroad

A Google News search for the phrase “resurgent Russia” brings up some rather interesting results. The phrase is used in numerous articles, many of which have titles like “Putin Thumbs Nose at West,”US ready to ‘push back’ against Russia: official,” and “Why Tensions With Russia Endure”. Not to mention the number of “special issues,” “in-depths,” and “events” that make “resurgent Russia” an organizing theme. True, Russia is indeed “resurgent” both economically and geopolitically. And there is no doubt that this “resurgence” has inspired many journalists and analysts to speak about a new Cold War between Russia and the West (I especially like how the “West” is deployed as a corporate entity as if independent Western states don’t have their own interests when it comes to Russia. But that is another discussion.) And though American, European and Russian diplomats continually deny that a new Cold War is on the horizon, those denials certainly haven’t prevented people from talking like there is.

Yet despite all the fluff about the dangers a “resurgent Russia” potentially poses, one area it is not resurging is in its military presence abroad. In an investigation of Russia’s military bases abroad conducted by Kommersant Vlast’ Russia currently has 25 military bases outside its borders. Moreover, the fact that there is a “seeming randomness in their dispersal” raises the question as to their overall military effectiveness (Click here for a map of Russian bases). The forces that occupy them are rather small and not equipped “to repulse a large-scale attack by a regular army.” In addition, Moscow’s cooling relationship with its near abroad has increasingly made Russian troops unwelcome and even subject to attacks and harassment. Granted the Kommerant Vlast’ report is based “exclusively from published sources” so for all we know the number could be somewhat higher.

What is more revealing is when you consider the number of Russia’s bases aboard with two of the globes’ other geopolitical powerhouses: the United States and China. According to Kommersant, China “does not have a single base on foreign soil.” An assertion I find rather interesting, if not surprising. The United States, however, manages a foreign base bonanza. As Chalmers Johnson wrote three years ago,

It’s not easy to assess the size or exact value of our empire of bases. Official records on these subjects are misleading, although instructive. According to the Defense Department’s annual “Base Structure Report” for fiscal year 2003, which itemizes foreign and domestic U.S. military real estate, the Pentagon currently owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and HAS another 6,000 bases in the United States and its territories.

Kommersant puts the current number of US military bases abroad at 800. They don’t state where they get this number from. In his new book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic,” Johnson puts the current number at 737 making the US, in his words, a “global empire.”

The lesson Kommersant takes from the number of military bases is clear. In general, a country’s interest in maintaining a presence abroad is an indicator of its government’s overall geopolitical strategy and of the degree of its military orientation.” And given its small number and haphazard dispersion, “Russia, however, does not seem to have a clear approach either to the former or the later.” So, as much as Russia maybe be resurgent, where that resurgence is taking it terms of global military dominance is not only completely unclear but seemingly non-existent.