“Up For Grabs”: Russia’s ‘Most Strategic’ Military Base That Gave Soviet Navy Access To East Med Offered To NATO

Albania has offered NATO its Soviet-era Pasha Liman naval base in a bid to highlight its importance in the alliance amid the ongoing Ukraine war.

“In these dangerous times I believe the general may consider having a NATO naval base in Albania,” the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama said.

The Pasha Liman naval base, located 180km south of the capital Tirana, could be “an added value” to the alliance, the Prime Minister added.

The facility, located in Vlora Bay was built in the 1950s for the Soviet Navy which had deployed 12 diesel attack submarines there to stretch Soviet military presence into the Eastern Mediterranean.

However, the arrangement did not last long as the former dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha broke off ties with Moscow in 1961.

Pasha Liman Naval Base In Albania (Google Earth)

Over the years, Albania has transformed itself into a staunch pro-American and pro-West nation and joined NATO in 2009. Also, in February, Albania and US initiated the resolution in the UN Security Council, to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On March 7, President Putin signed a decree that put Albania, North Macedonia, and Montenegro on a list of “unfriendly countries” together with the US, Canada, the UK, and EU member states.

In 1998, Albania and Turkey signed an agreement for the reconstruction of the naval military base in Pasha Liman and the Naval Academy in Vlora.

Around $10 billion were spent on this project which involved 250 Turkish military engineers. Currently, the naval base is used by the Turkish Navy and other NATO allies for some military ships patrolling the Ionian and Adriatic Seas.

NATO is also working on upgrading Albania’s Soviet-era Kucove Air Base, 85km south of the capital Tirana, which will allow it to be used for alliance operations.

Albanian Air Force Shenyang F-6 fighters outside Kuçovë Air Base’s tunnel. (Wikimedia Commons)

Also, in early January, the US Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR) announced its decision to “locate a forward-based SOF (Special Operation Forces) headquarters, on a rotational basis, in Albania.”

“The ability to rapidly move and train within the Balkans, in close coordination with other allied and partner forces, made Albania the best location for this effort,” said Major General David H. Tabor, the Commander of SOCEUR.

Growing Volatility In Balkans

Reports suggest the invasion of Ukraine by Russia may have grave consequences for the stability of the Balkans which is already split between the pro-Russian camp (Serbia and Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina) and pro-Western countries (Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, and North Macedonia).

For example, Bosnia is currently facing a political and security crisis, as Serbian nationalists led by Milorad Dodik are pushing for secession of the Republika Srpska from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik with Russian President Vladimir Putin (Reuters)

The invasion of Ukraine had spurred fears that Dodik could declare the independence of Republika Srpska and its 1.3 million people, following the example of Donetsk and Luhansk, and then ask for Russian protection.

The EU reportedly sent an additional 500 troops to the EUFOR mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a preventive step against this scenario.

Albania’s Strategic Location

Bordering Montenegro, Kosovo, and North Macedonia, Albania provides easy access to Yugoslavia’s successor states which have sizable Serbian populations that are heavily influenced by Serbia, also a former Yugoslav country and a staunch ally of Russia, which experts suggest, aims to revive pan-Slavism and unite the Slavic world under Russian patronage.

Furthermore, the country has a strategic location with access to both the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea and the Pasha Liman naval base is located at the junction of these two water bodies.

During Cold War, Pasha Liman was the only naval base belonging to the Soviet Union that granted Moscow access to the East Mediterranean.

US and allied ships sail in formation with the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Adriatic Sea on February 2, 2022. (Alison Bath/Stars and Stripes)

In 2013, Russia reportedly approached the Montenegrin government with a request for regular access for its battleships to the seaports of Bar and Kotor at the Adriatic sea to regain access to the Mediterranean.

However, Montenegro, since its independence from Serbia in 2006 had set itself on a course towards full Western integration, and reportedly under pressure from NATO, rejected Moscow’s offer.

That said, the onset of the Syrian civil war provided an opportunity for Kremlin which it seized and since 2015, the Hmeimeem airbase in Syria has served as the main outpost for Russia in the Mediterranean which it has been using to launch attacks on ISIS strongholds.

Russia’s Hmeimim Air Base in Syria (Google Earth)

Experts suggest that Russia could use access to the Adriatic sea to reinforce its naval presence in the Mediterranean.

“Considering Russia’s base in Syria, increasing its influence in Montenegro could facilitate [Moscow’s] connection from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean,” Dilek Kütük, a Turkish expert on the Balkans told Al Jazeera.

“Together with Serbia, it could pose a threat in the middle of Europe. This was unacceptable to NATO.”

Having joined NATO in 2017, Montenegro values its relationships with Washington, London, Brussels, and Berlin, however, it has been historically close to Russia, which shares a Slavic and Orthodox heritage, and the country’s politics has long been marked by divisions between those who identify as Montenegrins and pro-Russia Serbs.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, about 100 Serbian nationalists rallied in front of an Orthodox church in Montenegro in a show of support for President Vladimir Putin.

Therefore, given Albania’s strategic location and the growing volatility in the Balkans amid the Ukraine crisis, the offer of the Pasha Liman naval base to NATO may enhance Tirana’s importance in the alliance.