Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

Russia expands military footprint abroad with new Syria base

Explainer: Air force facility enlarged near Latakia, in one of nine foreign countries where Moscow positions troops

U.S. officials have said that the Russian military is ramping up its presence in the coastal areas of Syria where Moscow-backed President Bashar al-Assad has the most support. 

Although denials have been issued by the Russian and Syrian governments, an influx of hardware and personnel at an air base near Latakia would shore up Assad’s hold on the same part of the country where Russia has long kept naval assets in the port of Tartus.

Though Syria may be the only Middle Eastern location for Russian military facilities abroad, its forces and weapons are widely deployed throughout Russia’s “near abroad.” Russian President Vladimir Putin oversees a military machine that spans from Belarus and Armenia to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Russia has been accused of deploying its military in secessionist eastern Ukraine, and Putin has admitted using troops to annex the Crimean Peninsula.

Most of the locations are former Soviet Union military installations, and some are relatively close to U.S. or NATO troops. Putin has said his country intends no expansionism and is interested only in self-defense and has tried to draw attention instead to growing U.S. military reach — with some 800 bases — around the world. At a recent security conference in Dushanbe, Putin explained his country’s efforts to fight what he called “terrorist aggression.”

A Russian plane delivering humanitarian aid at Bassel al-Assad Airport, near Latakia, Syria. Moscow has been sending military equipment as well.
Syrian Arab News Agency / AFP


The Pentagon has claimed that Russia has been shipping troops and equipment to western Syria at an increasing rate, suggesting the possible creation of an air force base at the international airport in Jableh, south of Latakia. An Assad stronghold, Latakia is the largest city in the largely Alawite area of Syria on the Mediterranean Sea. 

Russia’s government has described the newly arrived men as advisers, whose presence coincides with the delivery of military equipment, including tanks and anti-aircraft missiles. Much of the materiel is being transported on cargo planes flying over Iranian and Iraqi airspace.

Meanwhile, the Russian navy continues to operate out of Tartus, closer to the border with Lebanon. Assad called that base “very necessary” earlier this year. The Tartus facility includes a Russian radar station for monitoring developments on the ground throughout the region. Last year Syrian rebels seized a base near the Golan Heights, where Russian intelligence had been monitoring rebel and Israeli movements.

Russian troops at the 102nd military base in Gyumri, Armenia, in 2013.
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images


Russia maintains a significant presence in Gyumri, the second-largest city in Armenia, a Caucasian country that largely relies on Moscow for security and economic well-being. Some 75 miles north of Yerevan, the capital, about 5,000 troops are housed at the 102nd military base. 

While agreements allow the base to remain until 2044, major protests broke out in January after a Russian soldier killed six members of an Armenian family at their home. The incident was not the first. In 1999 two drunk soldiers opened fire in the city, killing two people and injuring 14. In 2010, Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, said the base would “support peace and stability in the southern Caucasus.”

In addition to dozens of tanks and several S-300 missile batteries at Gyumri, Russia’s 3624th air base maintains a fleet of fighter jets and attack helicopters at Erebuni Airport, 5 miles south of central Yerevan. 

Russia has a strong military presence in Georgia’s disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


In each of the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia maintains about 3,000 troops. Recognized by Russia and several other countries as independent, Abkhazia hosts the Gudauta military base on the former Bombora airfield. The facility has tanks and armored personnel carriers in addition to some fighter jets. With a license to operate for a half-century, the base was established in 2009 after Russia pushed out Georgian troops during a brief war.

Georgia claims that Russia has at least 100 soldiers at the Gali base near the border with Georgian-controlled territory.

Russian troops in South Ossetia, also recognized by Moscow as an independent state, are in two main locations. On the outskirts of the capital, the Tskhinvali military base — with a 49-year-lease — hosts tactical missiles and anti-missile rockets. The Java base to the north holds other military assets, in a situation that has recently grown more inflamed, reportedly as a result of Russian efforts to seize more land around South Ossetia’s border with Georgia.

A Russian serviceman on a smokestack at the former Ukrainian navy headquarters in Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.
Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images


With a simmering conflict just beyond the European Union’s eastern border, Russia has challenged the West to define the limits of its support for the government in Kiev. It has annexed Crimea — home of a giant naval base — and is accused of committing significant resources to a rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

The Black Sea Fleet, a large command of the Russian navy, is mainly based in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. The Russian takeover of Crimea last year ensured Moscow's continued access to the Black Sea. Ukrainian army units were routed from Crimea, and Ukrainian navy ships mostly transferred into Russia’s control

The violence between Russian-allied insurgents and Ukrainian forces in the Donbass areas of Donetsk and Luhansk continues, with no end in sight in the war of attrition between those self-declared people’s republics and Kiev. The extent of Moscow’s involvement is in dispute; some analysts say thousands of Russian troops have entered Ukraine.

Russian soldiers at a checkpoint in Trans-Dniester, a separatist region of Moldova, in April 2014.
Daniel Mihailescu / AFP


Just west of Ukraine in the breakaway region of Trans-Dniester, 1,500 Russian troops with Soviet-era weaponry maintain a presence in Moldova, Europe’s poorest country. Soviet soldiers had been in the area since 1956, and the collapse of the USSR led to in a 1992 civil war, culminating in the region’s declaring its independence. Though recognized by no country, even Russia, Trans-Dniester has maintained its separation for 25 years.

The Russian military faces difficulty in traveling to and from the region, since Ukraine formally cut off military cooperation with Russia in May. The Moldovan government often turns back Tiraspol-based soldiers trying to fly out of Chisinau, the capital.

From left, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko, in Minsk, Belarus, in August 2014.
Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP


With a growing presence at air bases, a radar center and a naval communications hub, the Russian military maintains a substantial presence in Belarus. One of Russia’s closest allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States, Belarus is also a key member of the Eurasian Economic Community.

During the escalating Ukraine crisis, Russia sent Su-27 fighter jets and cargo planes to the Baranavichi air base in western Belarus. The Babruysk air base in eastern Belarus might eventually host more Russian planes, and the northwestern city of Lida has been cited as a potential location as well. But a 2009 agreement to create jointly operated regional air defense has not been fully carried out

Meanwhile, the Hantsavichy radar station hosts a Volga-type early-warning system operated by the Russian air force, designed to track missiles launched from Western Europe and monitor satellites. And outside Vileyka, near the border with Lithuania, a transmitter sends messages to Russian submarines.

A Russian officer and Su-27 fighter jets at the Russian air force base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, in 2013.
Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP / Getty Images

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — with Russia, the other Eurasian Economic Community members — host significant Russian military bases. In Kazakhstan, the Sary Shagan weapons testing center remains Russia’s main facility for experimenting with anti-ballistic missiles. Nearby, the Balkhash radar station provides advance notice of missiles coming from China, India, Pakistan and the Bay of Bengal. Russia leases the Baikonur Cosmodrome to launch military and civilian missions into space.

In Kyrgyzstan, Russian retains air force assets at the Kant base, with a leasing agreement through 2032 for the facility, which hosts some 400 personnel near Bishkek, the capital. In addition, the navy operates a communications center and torpedo weapon testing grounds at Karakol. 

Tajikistan’s Dushanbe, Kurgan-Tyube and Kulob bases are collectively home to more than 7,000 Russian troops in the 201st Motor Rifle Division, along with some 100 tanks as part of an agreement that lasts until 2042. A brawl in July pitted a group of drunk Russian soldiers against locals who had complained about noise disturbances.

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