Russia’s expanding military presence, from Vietnam to Latin America, is reviving Cold War-style tensions with the United States.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed Thursday that the U.S. is pressing Vietnam to bar Russian military aircraft from refueling at the former American base at Cam Ranh Bay, while a U.S. commander raised concerns about Russia’s military activities in the Western Hemisphere.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed surprise on Friday at Psaki’s remarks and said Russia’s military cooperation in Vietnam and elsewhere is “not targeted against any third parties.”
As Russian President Vladimir Putin accuses the U.S. of meddling in his backyard by backing the government of Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists, the U.S. is protesting Russia’s far-flung displays of military strength.
Russia’s use of an airfield at Cam Ranh Bay, a U.S. base during the Vietnam War and then a Soviet naval base until 2002, is drawing a complaint from the Obama administration.
“We have urged Vietnamese officials to ensure that Russia is not able to use its access to Cam Ranh Bay to conduct activities that could raise tensions in the region,” Psaki said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry countered that its Air Force’s activities in Vietnam, as well as military cooperation with other nations, are carried out in “strict compliance with international norms and bilateral agreements” and “pose no threat to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific Region,” according to Russia’s TASS news agency.
At a Senate committee hearing on Thursday, Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command, said Russia is stepping up its efforts to gain influence in the Americas.
Periodically since 2008, Russia has pursued an increased presence in Latin America through propaganda, military arms and equipment sales, counterdrug agreements and trade, he said in a statement submitted as he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“Under President Putin, however, we have seen a clear return to Cold War tactics,” according to Kelly.
Russia’s Western Hemisphere activities don’t pose “an immediate threat” but “underscore the importance of remaining engaged with our partners” in the Americas, Kelly said.
Russia is courting Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua “to gain access to air bases and ports for resupply of Russian naval assets and strategic bombers operating in the Western Hemisphere,” Kelly said.
Starting last year, a Russian intelligence ship has docked in Havana “multiple times conducting operations in the Gulf of Mexico and along the East Coast of the United States,” he said.
President Barack Obama has moved the U.S. toward normalizing relations with Cuba, over objections from some lawmakers who say the island nation’s Communist regime can’t be trusted.
In Europe, already on edge due to Putin’s backing of the Ukrainian rebels, Russia’s military forces are engaged in “dangerous brinkmanship” with the armed forces of NATO, the European Leadership Network, a London-based research group, said in a report Thursday.
Both Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have moved more air assets into closer proximity to each other in Europe, according to the report. NATO has reinforced the Baltic Air Policing Mission – a show of support for NATO members Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – and operated airborne warning and control system aircraft out of bases in Poland and Romania, while Russia has moved combat aircraft into bases in newly annexed Crimea and increased the number of flights by its long- range warplanes.
The group said that since March 2014 there have been at least 66 risky encounters between Russian air or naval forces and NATO or civilian aircraft or ships. It said it’s identified 27 new incidents since its initial report on the subject in November.
Those include a “narrowly avoided collision” Dec. 12 between an SAS airliner and a Russian military jet flying with its transponder switched off, according to the Swedish military. Over the past year, Russian military aircraft have probed and sometimes violated the borders of European nations’ airspace more than 100 times, according to NATO.
In most of these instances, the Russians have turned off their transponders, the electronic devices that commercial jets are required to use to make it easy to track them. Operating without the devices, known as “flying dark,” poses a serious risk to civilian air traffic, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference in December.
In another potentially dangerous encounter, Russian Su-30 fighter jets and Su-24 attack bombers used two NATO ships in the Black Sea this month to practice penetrating anti-air systems, according to a report by RIA Novosti.
“Such actions risk provoking a more proactive defensive response from the captains of these ships should they feel endangered, while there are not sufficient dialogue mechanisms in place to manage the fallout from a possible shoot-down of a Russian aircraft,” the European Leadership Network said.
In the Western Hemisphere, Russia is “using power projection in an attempt to erode U.S. leadership and challenge U.S. influence,” Kelly said in his statement.
Kelly also cited Russian media reports announcing that the country would begin sending long-range strategic bombers to patrol the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to “monitor foreign powers’ military activities and maritime communications.” He didn’t say whether the U.S. has evidence that such flights have commenced.
The closest the U.S. and what was then the Soviet Union came to nuclear war was during 13 days in October 1962 after the Communist nation secretly placed medium- and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles in Cuba. The U.S. learned decades later that the Soviets also had deployed 35 battlefield nuclear missiles and 40,000 troops, far more than the Central Intelligence Agency’s best estimate at the time of as many as 12,000 troops.
Separately, Adm. William Gortney, head of the U.S. Northern Command, told the Senate committee that Russia “is progressing toward its goal of deploying long-range, conventionally armed cruise missiles with ever-increasing stand- off launch distances on its heavy bombers, submarines and surface combatants.”
This non-nuclear weapon would augment “the Kremlin’s toolkit of flexible deterrent options,” if deployed, he said.
With assistance from Carol Matlack in Paris.