By Andrew Osborn
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will create a permanent naval base in Syria to expand its military footprint in its closest Middle East ally, a government official said on Monday, a week after Moscow said it was considering reopening Soviet-era bases in Vietnam and Cuba.
The move, announced by Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Pankov, is further evidence Russia is building up its capabilities in Syria despite a partial drawdown in March and another sign it is digging in for the long haul to help prop up President Bashar al-Assad.
"By doing this Russia is not only increasing its military potential in Syria but in the entire Middle East," Senator Igor Morozov, a member of the upper house of parliament's International Affairs Committee, told the RIA news agency.
A Reuters analysis of publicly available tracking data shows Moscow has steadily built up its forces in Syria since a ceasefire collapsed in late September, doubling supply runs by air and sea.
The base plan, which will involve upgrading and expanding an existing naval facility at the port of Tartus which Moscow leases from Syria, is part of a push to expand or create a new military presence abroad.
The Izvestia newspaper said Moscow was also in talks to open an air base in Egypt, while the state-owned Rossiskaya Gazeta daily noted that Russia has said it wants bases in Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Seychelles and Singapore too.
At odds with Washington over Syria and Ukraine, Russia has engaged in a bout of sabre-rattling in recent weeks, moving S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Tartus, nuclear-capable missiles to its European exclave of Kaliningrad, and reinforcing its Syria strike force.
The Russian Defence Ministry said on Monday that Russian paratroopers would for the first time also take part in war games with Egyptian paratroopers on Egyptian soil this month.
TOEHOLD IN THE MED
Pankov said plans for the permanent naval base at Tartus were well advanced.
"The necessary papers are ready and are in the process of being approved by different agencies," he told senators. "We hope we can ask you to ratify these documents soon."
Moscow already has a permanent air base in Syria from which it flies air strikes against anti-Assad rebels and uses military trainers, special forces, marines and artillery specialists to help support Syrian government forces on the ground.
Senator Morozov said that having a permanent naval base as well would allow Russia to operate more ships in the Mediterranean as they would have an enhanced facility where they could refuel and resupply.
Moscow inherited the Tartus facility when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and it is now the Russian navy's sole foothold in the Mediterranean. Despite some modernisation, it is currently fairly modest and unable to welcome larger warships.
Leonid Slutsky, a senior parliamentarian, told RIA its capacity would be expanded and it would be equipped with anti-submarine defences and new electronics systems on top of the S-300 missiles it recently received.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Winning; Editing by Alison Williams)