NOVOROSSIYSK Russia (Reuters) - Russia will increase its Black Sea fleet with more than 80 new warships by 2020 and will complete a second naval base for the fleet near the city of Novorossiysk by 2016, its commander said on Tuesday.
In comments made to President Vladimir Putin as he visited the port city, Vice Admiral Alexander Vitko said a second Black Sea base was needed in addition to the main base on the Crimea peninsula annexed from Ukraine because of NATO expansion.
“Eighty ships and other vessels are expected to arrive (in Novorossiysk) before 2020. The Black Sea Fleet will have 206 ships and vessels by 2020,” Vitko told Putin.
“NATO ships are constantly present in the Black Sea and it plans to establish a naval base in the Black Sea,” he added.
NATO has regularly conducted naval exercises in the Black Sea, especially since Russia annexed Crimea, populated mainly by ethnic Russians, in March partly from fear that Ukraine’s new pro-Western authorities might try to join the Atlantic alliance.
A NATO official told Reuters in Brussels there were no alliance plans to build a Black Sea base but said it already had access to the resources of member states in the region.
“Our Black Sea allies have ports that we use from time to time but (there are) no plans to build a “Nato” base as suggested,” the official said.
Three NATO members have a Black Sea coastline - Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey.
The former Soviet republic of Georgia, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, has sought membership in the past but like Ukraine is very unlikely to be admitted any time soon due to Moscow’s fierce opposition to NATO’s further eastern expansion.
During NATO exercises in western Ukraine earlier this month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu promised to boost the number of troops in Crimea.
On Tuesday, Shoigu was overseeing Russian military exercises involving 155,000 servicemen in the Far East. He told Putin in a video conference that the army’s firepower and assault capabilities had increased lately as part of spending plans for the armed forces set to cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
“The firing, assault and maneuver capabilities ... have increased due to the supplies of modern weapons and equipment,” Shoigu said.
Russia plans to spend 21 trillion rubles ($545 billion) by the end of the decade on refurbishing Russia’s armed forces. Some of those funds will be used to improve the defense infrastructure of Crimea.
Russia has staged several military exercises this year, including near Ukraine’s border, which have contributed to the tensions with the West, which sees the increased training as saber rattling amid the persistent disagreements over Ukraine.
(1 US dollar = 38.5400 Russian rouble)
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in Brussels; Writing by Thomas Grove and Alexei Anishchuk; Editing by Gareth Jones
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