Military build-up in the Kuril Islands: Bad timing or a signal from Moscow?

Moscow has deployed anti-ship missile complexes on the southern Kuril Islands on the eve of a scheduled visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin in December, thereby upping the ante in the 70-year diplomatic standoff between the two countries, which have not, formally, ended the Second World War in the absence of a peace treaty.

On the eve of a scheduled visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia has stationed Bal and Bastion missile complexes (NATO code names Sennight and Stooge) on the disputed Kuril Islands in the Russian Far East, seized from Tokyo at the end of World War Two and termed the “Northern Territories” by consecutive Japanese governments.

The deployment of the anti-ship missile units on Nov. 22, just weeks before scheduled talks between Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Yamaguchi Prefecture on December 15, is being seen as detrimental to recent attempts by both sides to clear the stage for some sort of “accommodation” of the ostensibly unresolvable territorial dispute.

One of the arguments possibly used to diffuse tension might be the weapons’ capabilities. But there is one “but .“

The Bal complex, armed with the X-35 anti-ship missile, can hit targets at a range of 120 kilometers (75 miles). The Bastion complex, however, is equipped with supersonic Onyx missiles and can strike not only battleships but also destroy land-based targets within a range of 600 kilometers. This makes it not only a defensive but also an offensive weapon.

In March this year, the original news of the planned deployment of the anti-ship systems caused one of the readers of Japan Today to comment underneath: “Here is Russia going headlong into a program to stretch its military supply lines way out to their frontiers, far beyond their interests. To defend against a threat that does not exist. And in doing so, they alienate a huge source of patient capital.”

Another comment written by someone with a non-Japanese name, a certain Matt Hartwell, even went so far as to speculate that the missiles could be used in a future Sino-Russian alliance against Japan: “No doubt they will be put to good use when Russia and China agree to attack Japanese territory, if not Japan itself. Japan is severely outgunned. China is betting they will be left alone by the U.S.”

All in all, both Bal and Bastion have triggered off a tsunami of nervous comments, which may poison, if not the outcome of the coming negotiations, then certainly the atmosphere around them.

The need for subtle diplomacy

There is no point in dramatizing the military upgrade on the Kuril Islands, Ivan Konovalov, head of military policy and economics section at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, claims. Yet it does look like a “show of force,” he adds.

“Deployment of the missile complexes has been part and parcel of the on-going reform of the Russian armed forces, launched back in 2008. For too long the Far Eastern regions were neglected in terms of military infrastructure and rearmament. It was long overdue.

“The current build-up was planned long ago. It mirrors the same military upgrade taking place in the most western part of Russia, the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea. I would not exclude the possible deployment of the S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missile system, the one that after its deployment in Syria has totally revamped the strategic balance of forces in the whole region.”

– Although the decision on the deployment of Bal and Bastion missile complexes was apparently taken long time ago, today it coincided with preparations for the visit by the Russian president to Tokyo amid probably inflated expectations it might produce some compromise. Isn’t this poor timing for the build-up on the Kurils?

“True, the move was planned well-ahead. Yet, happenstance is rare in geopolitics. In my view, this is indeed a show of political will and sort of a show of force.

– But the moment for the deployment looks rather inappropriate…

“I wouldn’t say that. Bilateral relations seem to have picked up and are moving in the right direction. Besides, China is becoming more assertive in the region. Russia is carrying out its ‘pivot to Asia’ and enhancing its foothold. The United States, if viewed from the perspective of the Trump presidency, seems to be reluctant to overstretch its commitments to defend Japan. Under the circumstances, Tokyo would act pragmatically if it’s looking for compromises on the disputed islands.

“In some way, the deployment of Bal and Bastion is happening at the right time: when relations between Russia and Japan are not on the brink of abyss but climbing up a steep slope. However, the East requires a certain level of sophisticated subtleness. It really counts.”

Is Moscow playing hardball?

It is worth focusing on the admission by Ivan Konovalov that on the surface the deployment of the missiles looks like “a show of force.” Is this deliberately intended to raise the stakes? So as to leave no illusions that Moscow might one day abandon the stance recently spelled out by Putin (“We do not trade territories”)?

This line of thinking has called into doubt by Fyodor Shelov-Kovedyayev, an academic and former First Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, who subscribes to the view that it is a mere coincidence. The deployment of Bal and Bastion, announced a long time ago, was exposed to detailed coverage and digestion this spring. It is nothing new.

“I do not think that this is a message and Japan is on the receiving end of it. There is more likelihood that it is not the government of Japan but the new U.S. administration under Donald Trump that might interpret this move as unfriendly. I have a feeling that in the end it will not have a negative impact on Putin’s scheduled visit.”However, proponents of conspiracy theories would stretch their fantasy further by drawing parallels with the undercover tug-of-war between the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Defense, which clashed over “partnership” with Russia in fighting Islamic State terrorists in Syria. In an unprecedented display of conflicting views, John Kerry and Ashton Carter traded verbal abuse in September.

Could the military build-up in the South Kuril Islands represent an act of sabotage by the Russian military, unhappy about a possible resolution of the territorial dispute with Japan?

“Improbable. In Russia, the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Ministry of Defense think in sync and work in tune. The relations between [Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov and [Defense Minister] Sergei Shoigu have nothing in common with the Kerry-Carter sparring,” Shelov-Kovedyayev told RBTH.

Plot thickens around Putin’s visit

The year 2015 was hallmarked by tough talks held by Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kisida. They culminated in Moscow’s drawing of a red line: The status of the Kuril archipelago is “non-negotiable.” Lavrov reiterated that Japan had to acknowledge the end results of the Second World War.

And yet, according to various sources, this “red line” did not derail attempts by both sides to maintain a dialogue.

Nevertheless, the much-anticipated visit by Vladimir Putin to Tokyo, which was expected to take place at the end of 2015, was once again postponed. In a certain way, it prolonged the “no war, no peace” legal limbo that the two nations are stuck in.

Now that Bal and Bastion have been added to the overweight portfolio of bilateral relationship, the intrigue over the substance and style (this matters in Japan) of Putin’s visit to Tokyo has thickened.

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