The Bear is back because it is a perfectly good place to keep a chunk of its fleet that also puts it all on an active footing. The USA and Britain has had the luxury of global depots for centuries even while others are now waking up to their usefulness. China has the problem that while it has a Navy it is actually restricted to Home Ports very like the position of the German fleet in the first half of the twentieth century.
At the same time it allows Russia through its ally to exercise a real presence in the South China Sea much to China's chagrin. Russia is in a position to provide agressive confrontation when the USA chooses passivity.
Thus China is contained by an effective ring of steel on land and an effective Naval cordon through long lasting USA alliances. Russia has merely added an additional link to this chain.
Thus perhaps we can understand China's activities in surrounding waters attempting to artificially create fait accompli and push up against this cordon. Great power status looks pretty empty if you have to ask permission to set sail from home. The same holds true for Russia. Maybe it is time to take all this less seriously.
China has failed to make actual allies anywhere simply because of their belief in historical Chinese superiority. Russia at least has Vietnam. They all need to stop believing Clausewitz and so do we.
Why the Bear is Back: Russian Military Presence in Vietnam
Global Research, June 15, 2015
Russia-Vietnam ties that seemed to be cooling after the end of
the Cold War are warming up all over again. More than 20 years after
Moscow abandoned its largest foreign base, Russian military aircraft are
once again welcome visitors at Cam Ranh Bay.
The renewed Russian presence in Vietnam has predictably set the alarm
bells ringing in the Pentagon, with the Commander of the US Army in the
Pacific confirming that Russian strategic bombers circling the massive
American military base in Guam are being refuelled at Cam Ranh Bay.
On March 11 Washington wrote to Hanoi, requesting that the Vietnamese
authorities not assist Russian bomber flights in the Asia-Pacific. The
Vietnamese reaction was to remain publicly silent. According to Phuong
Nguyen of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International
“From the perspective of many Vietnamese officials who
fought against the United States during the war, Moscow helped train
generations of Vietnamese leaders and supported Hanoi during its decades
of international isolation.”
“Few things are more vital to Vietnam than an independent
foreign policy. Given Vietnam’s complex history, its leaders do not
want their country to be caught between major powers again. Anything
that resembles U.S. interference in Vietnam’s dealings with Russia could
unnecessarily aggravate this fear.”
Although the Vietnamese consider the US an increasingly important
partner in Southeast Asia, it’s Russia that tops the pecking order. A
per an agreement inked in November 2014, Russian warships visiting the
deep water port of Cam Ranh only have to give prior notice to the
Vietnamese authorities before steaming in whereas all other foreign
navies are limited to just one annual ship visit to Vietnamese ports.
Why Vietnam matters
Located at the gateway to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Vietnam is
of critical importance to Russia. Permanent basing of air and naval
assets in Vietnam helps the Russian Pacific Fleet solve its problem of
having to pass through the narrow straits of the Sea of Japan to gain
access to the Pacific.
To be sure, the current Russian presence is minimal compared with the
firepower of the 1980s, when Moscow’s Pacific fleet consisted of an
incredible 826 ships, including 133 submarines, 190 naval bomber jets
and 150 anti-submarine aircraft. Even back then, Moscow’s buildup was
hardly aggressive. According to Alvin H. Bernstein of the US Naval War
College, it was “unlikely to have a specific, aggressive, regional
intent since that would be quite out of character for a power” that has
revealed itself as “cautious and non-confrontational”.
Three decades on, Moscow under President Vladimir Putin is once again
seeking to enhance its role as both an Asian and global power, and as
Bernstein noted, the country wants to be “prepared for all contingencies
It’s also part of Vietnam’s Look East policy. In fact, much before US
President Barack Obama announced its pivot to Asia, Russia was already
pivoting East, making inroads into once pro-American countries such as
Indonesia and Malaysia.
However, it is in Vietnam where Russian diplomacy is in overdrive. But first a quick flashback.
Vietnam is a small country with a military that punches way above its
weight. For those with short memories, the Southeast Asia country
handed out resounding defeats to France and the U.S. in back to back
wars. Stupendous bravery, clever battle tactics and a never-say-die
spirit were decisive in winning those wars, but a key factor was that
the Vietnamese had powerful friends.
During the Vietnam War, Russia played a critical role in Vietnam’s
defence, supplying a massive quantity of weapons. Over the course of the
21-year war Russian assistance was worth $2 million a day. In return,
Vietnam offered Russia free use of the Cam Ranh Bay base. As part of
this agreement, the Russians stationed MiG-23 fighters, Tu-16 tankers,
Tu-95 long range bombers and Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft at
Cam Ranh became Moscow’s largest naval base for forward deployment
outside Europe. Some 20 ships were berthed daily at the base, along with
six nuclear attack submarines. The base played a pivotal role in
helping Russia in its Cold War faceoff against American-led forces in
Asia and the Pacific. For instance, when the U.S. Seventh Fleet sailed
up the Bay of Bengal to put pressure on India during the 1971 India
Pakistan War, the Russian Pacific Fleet was quickly able to dispatch
nuclear-armed submarines and warships to defend India.
Despite Cam Ranh Bay’s importance to Moscow geopolitically and its
value as an intelligence gathering post, the Russian presence
practically evaporated after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Military bases of the scale of Cam Ranh Bay cost an insane amount of
money to operate and Russia no longer had cash to burn. In 2001, even
the listening station was abandoned.
China gets Klubbed
Although the Russian military presence declined, strong ties
continued to bind Russia and Vietnam. In the backdrop of Vietnam’s
high-decibel spat with China for control of the oil-rich Spratly
Islands, Hanoi went on a high-octane hardware hunt. Vietnam’s legendary
air force acquired 24 Su-30 combat jets from Russia, and by the end of
2015, it will operate 36 Sukhois, becoming the third largest operator of
this advanced super-maneuverable aircraft.
However, it is the Vietnam People’s Army Navy (VPAN) that is really
beefing up. In 2009, Vietnam signed a $3.2 billion deal with Russia that
includes six Kilo class submarines and construction of a submarine
facility at Cam Ranh Bay.
Another big-ticket acquisition is that of 50 Klub supersonic cruise
missiles for its Kilos, making Vietnam the first Southeast Asian nation
to arm its submarine fleet with a land attack missile.
Weighing two tons, the Klub has a 200 kg warhead. The anti-ship
version has a range of 300 km, but speeds up to 3,000 km an hour during
its last minute or so of flight. According to Strategy Page, the land
attack version does away with the high speed final approach feature and
that makes possible a larger 400 kg warhead.
What makes the Klub particularly dangerous when attacking ships is
that during its final approach, which begins when the missile is about
15 km from its target, the missile speeds up,” reports Strategy Page.
“Up to that point, the missile travels at an altitude of about a hundred
feet. This makes the missile more difficult to detect. That plus the
high speed final approach means that it covers that last 15 km in less
than 20 seconds. This makes it more difficult for current anti-missile
weapons to take it down.
Russian built submarines armed with the potent Klubs are expected to
play a critical role in any conflict in the South China Sea. According
to one analyst, the land-attack cruise missiles mark a “massive shift”
advancing Vietnam’s naval capabilities. “They’ve given themselves a much
more powerful deterrent that complicates China’s strategic
It is believed Chinese warships have no effective defense against
missile like Klub, which why they have gone ballistic about Russia
selling them to Vietnam.
While the Kilos are being built, Russia and India are currently in
charge of training Vietnamese officers who will work in the submarines.
Further Russian firepower
Plus, in 2011 the VPAN acquired two Gepard-class guided missile
stealth frigates from Russia at a cost of $300 million, with the Gepard
fleet set to increase to six by 2017. These versatile ships are equipped
for surface attacks, anti-submarine warfare and air defense.
The VPAN’s other acquisitions include four Svetlyak-class fast patrol
boats with anti-ship missiles; 12 frigates and corvettes of Russian
origin; and two Molniya-class missile fast attack ships built with
Russian assistance, with four more expected by 2016.
Vietnam has also acquired advanced radars; 40 Yakhont and 400 Kh-35
Uran anti-ship missiles; Kh-59MK anti-ship cruise missiles; R-73 (AA-11
Archer) short-range air-to-air missiles; 200 SA-19 Grison surface-to-air
missiles; two batteries of the legendary S-300 surface-to-air systems;
VERA passive radio locators; and two batteries of the K-300P Bastion
coastal defense missiles.
According to a research paper by Portugal-based academics Phuc Thi
Tran, Alena Vysotskaya G. Vieira and Laura C. Ferreira-Pereira,
“The acquisition of military capabilities is critical,
not only purely for the sake of defense and strategic calculations, but
also for the important function it plays in the safeguarding of both
economic interests and the security of oil field explorations in the
South China Sea. This latter aspect is particularly critical given the
role that Russia has been playing herein. Indeed, the lion’s share of
these exploitation projects has being undertaken by Vietnam jointly with
While defense gets more traction in the media, it is energy that’s
the single biggest area of cooperation between Moscow and Hanoi. The
Russia-Vietnam joint venture Vietsovpetro has generated big dividends
for both countries. The company has produced more than 185 million tons
of crude oil and more than 21 billion cubic meters of gas from oilfields
in the South China Sea. Nearly 80 per cent of Vietnamese oil and gas
comes from Vietsovpetro, and the income corresponds to around 25 per
cent of GDP.
Russia has also made considerable investments in Vietnam’s heavy and
light industries, transportation, post, aquatic culture and fishing.
These projects have led to other spinoffs – impressed by the profits
generated by Russian corporations, a slew of other companies such as
Mobil, BP and TOTAL have ramped up investments in Vietnam.
Vietnam’s strategic hedging towards Russia is closely connected to
its economic cooperation in oil exploration, which brings significant
economic benefits to both sides. Strong defense ties between the two
countries has enabled Vietnam to acquire modern military equipment,
providing the country with the ability to advance joint explorations of
oil and gas despite growing Chinese opposition towards these projects.
At the same time, Russia is returning to reclaim its great power
legacy. It offers Moscow a myriad of opportunities to secure political
and economic influence with the various emerging powers in the heart of
the most dynamic region on the planet.
But, don’t blame Vietnam since this country is not an exception but a
confirmation to the prevailing Asian rule. As professor Anis
Bajrektarevic well states in his luminary work ‘No Asian Century’:
“What becomes apparent, nearly at the first glance, is
the absence of any pan-Asian security/multilateral structure. Prevailing
security structures are bilateral and mostly asymmetric. They range
from the clearly defined and enduring non-aggression security treaties,
through less formal arrangements, up to the Ad hoc cooperation accords
on specific issues. The presence of the multilateral regional settings
is limited to a very few spots in the largest continent, and even then,
they are rarely mandated with (politico-military) security issues in
their declared scope of work. Another striking feature is that most of
the existing bilateral structures have an Asian state on one side, and
either peripheral or external protégé country on the other side which
makes them nearly per definition asymmetric.”
Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based
journalist and foreign affairs analyst. According to him, he writes on
stuff the media distorts, misses or ignores. Rakesh started his career
in 1995 with New Delhi-based Business World magazine, and later worked
in a string of positions at other leading media houses such as India
Today, Hindustan Times, Business Standard and the Financial Express,
where he was the news editor.