Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest move in his continuing mission to develop Russia’s national and international military capabilities is causing whispers of unease in the international community. It appears that Russia is making a significant play for control over the North Pacific.
Earlier in the year, Russia announced plans to build a new Pacific naval base in the middle of the disputed Kuril Island chain north of Japan. Utilizing the pre-existing Japanese structures from World War II on Matua Island, Russia is set to turn the disputed territories into a significant base for the Russian military, with all reports indicating it will become the Russian Navy’s most eastern outpost.
Currently home to several military installations and 20,000 inhabitants, the Kuril Islands have in recent years been given an overhaul by Russia, with significant investment in the economy to renew the islands.
Recently, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that significant upgrades to the pre-existing military structures on the archipelago will be occurring over the next three to four years, with an initial investment of 700 units of military equipment and weaponry being supplied in this year alone.
According to a Col. Gen. Sergey Surovkin, commander of the Russian eastern military district, the Russian Far East, and in particular the Kuril Islands, is now considered vitally important for Russia’s national security, and Russia will be now undertaking “unprecedented measures to develop military infrastructure in the area.”
“Over the period to 2016, all major objects — more than 150 of them — on the islands of Iturup and Kunashir will be completed. Those will be modern, fully autonomous military settlements with a developed social infrastructure,” said Col. Gen. Sergey Surovikin.
The upgrades also include the reorganization of the 18th Division and supplying it with upgraded weapons systems, assigning a tank battalion on a permanent basis, and installing the Pantsyr, Tor, and Buk missile air defense systems. There will also be infrastructure for the S-400 missiles to be deployed there in times of crisis.
The air component of the islands’ garrison will include Ka-52K naval attack helicopters originally ordered for the Mistral ships, which will be based on the Kamchatka Peninsula and deploy to the islands on a rotational basis. The garrison will also include batteries of land-based anti-ship missiles, including the Bal and Bastion systems; the latter will be armed with supersonic Oniks missiles.
Col. Gen.Surovkin also noted that developing this “eastern outpost of Russia, particularly Sakhalin Island and the Kuril Islands, provides unconditional guarantees of security and the territorial integrity of our country.”
The only issue with this plan is that the Kuril Islands are at the heart of one of the Pacific’s longest running territorial disputes. Russia and Japan originally divided the islands between themselves in 1855, with Russia taking the northern islands closest to its mainland territory and Japan the southern islands.
After the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, the Japanese took over the southern half of the island of Sakhalin, and it was not until World War II that the whole chain of the Kuril Islands were annexed by the Soviet Union. In 1947, all Japanese inhabitants of the islands were repatriated to Japan.
Japan has, since this time, disputed Russia’s sovereignty over the four most southern islands in the chain — Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and the Habomai rocks. Putin stated last month that Russia does “not trade territories.” But he also noted that “concluding a peace treaty with Japan is certainly a key issue, and we would like to find a solution to this problem together with our Japanese friends.”
There is no doubt that the Kuril Islands are strategically important for Russia. Firstly, from an operational point of view, collectively the chain of islands form a barrier that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk, where a large segment of the Russian Pacific Fleet is stationed on the Kamchatka Peninsula at or around Avacha Bay.
Included in this is the Pacific-based submarine fleet, which is a cornerstone of the Russian Pacific naval operations. Relinquishing control over the archipelago’s southern region to Japan would effectively hinder the maneuverability of the fleet and cause bottlenecks during operations.
The loss of the islands would also create a significant threat to Russian national security, thanks to the recent Japanese militarisation, of a whole belt of Islands that stretch 1400 km from the Japanese mainland toward Taiwan.
As part of the United States’ “Asia Pivot” strategy, America and Japan are currently in the process of quietly deploying missile defense systems throughout Japan and South Korea, which, given the current diplomatic relations between Russia and the Unites States, would pose a considerable threat.
It should be noted that a new Russian missile, the Satan 2, can effectively avoid any known missile defense system. See this CNN report for more on that:
Finally, the islands are a platform for Russia to render defensive strikes against imminent threats or assistance to allies like China in territorial disputes with Japan, the U.S., and the Philippines over the status of China’s new South China Sea islands.
China or Russia
But a solution to the dispute may not be far off. The recent diplomatic difficulties with China in the Pacific and its growing expansionism has Japan worried. According to Vasily Kashin, senior research fellow at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies, Japan wants to be the counterbalance to Russia’s relationship with China.
“Both Russia and Japan are interested in bilateral cooperation. Russia needs Japan’s help in modernizing its economy, and Japan does not want Russia to be too close to China,” he stated, noting that Moscow and Tokyo already seem to have started working on a compromise to the Kuril issue.
For more in the modern history of the islands, watch this Seeker Daily video: