The great German statesman Otto von Bismarck once said, “Political judgement is the ability to hear the distant hoof-beats of the horse of history”. The Kremlin’s decision to establish a military base on the disputed Kuril Islands in North-east Asia must be counted as a matter of political judgement. Moscow intends to write history with the hope that history will, thereupon, be kind to it.
Nonetheless, it has been a low-key ‘announcement’, made inter alia by Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu during a routine meeting of his ministry’s board in Moscow on Friday. Perhaps, it cannot even be regarded as an ‘announcement’.
Shoigu simply disclosed that a team from the Russian Pacific Fleet is being dispatched to the disputed islands on a 3-month mission to determine the feasibility of building a naval base at a suitable location somewhere on the Greater Kuril Ridge.
Shoigu also slipped in a vital bit of information that Bal and Bastion shore-to-ship missiles and Eleron-3 drones will be deployed on the islands before the end of this year. These are of course formidable state-of-the-art Russian missile systems with the capability to protect naval bases and other strategic installations on the coast, defend coastline in probable landing approach areas and to establish control over strait zone and territorial waters in areas of high-risk assaults as well as for gaining overall dominance over the sea. Both have a range of up to 300 kilometers.
Suffice it to say, the Russian build-up that began last year with the construction of two military compounds on the eastern islands of the Kurils is entering a new stage with the current decision to put advanced weapon systems and establish a full-fledged naval base.
To recap briefly, sovereignty over the Kuril Islands became a disputed issue since World War II. In 1855, Russia gave away to Japan four southernmost islands in the chain, but the Soviet Union (re)claimed control over them in 1949 as per the understanding reached at the historic Yalta Summit. In 1951 Japan agreed to give up claim to the Kurils in the San Francisco Peace Treaty but it did not amount to anything since the USSR never signed that treaty, and the Japanese contention has been that the contested islands were not part of the Kurils.
The dispute prevented Russia and Japan from concluding a peace treaty to formally end their World-War enmity. Tokyo has been pinning hopes that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be inclined to make territorial concessions in his desire to expand the scope of Russo-Japanese strategic cooperation. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has virtually invited himself to visit Russia in May.
Moscow has signaled through its latest announcement that Abe should have no illusions that Russian policies are guided by national interests. Would Abe now proceed with the visit? That is one thing.
On the other hand, there is nothing new in the Russian stance, which has always been to differentiate the signing of a peace treaty from Japan from the territorial dispute as such.
What explains the Kremlin decision to establish a naval base on the Kurils, which is tantamount to a plain message to Tokyo that Moscow’s grit to keep the islands as an integral part of Russia is not to be doubted?
First and foremost, Russia is closely watching the Japanese deployments in the East China Sea. Tokyo reportedly plans to position a line of anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile batteries along 200 islands stretching 1400 km from the Japanese mainland towards Taiwan. Japan will also increase the number of military personnel on its islands in the East China Sea to almost 10,000 over the next five years.
Tokyo claims that these deployments are meant to check Chinese military influence. But against the historical backdrop of Japan’s militarism and revanchist tendencies, and taking into account the rise of nationalism and militarism in Abe’s Japan, Moscow will not take chances with Russia’s defense interests in the Far East.
An overarching factor in the Russian calculus would be the tensions in the relations with the US. The US and Japan have updated and strengthened their mutual defense treaty, which now obliges both sides to take to arms to support the other side in any conflict situation, and the US has begun deployments of the missile defense system in Japan and may do so in South Korea.
Russia and China have a common stance with regard to the ABM deployments. Most recently, after talks in Moscow in early March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov that putting the system in South Korea would “inflict direct harm to the strategic security interests of China and Russia.”
Lavrov responded that deploying the ABM system would be an overreaction. He said, “The plans, which the U.S. has been nursing together with the Republic of Korea, exceed any conceivable threats that may come from North Korea, even taking Pyongyang’s current actions into account”.
Thus, the proposed Russian deployments on the Kurils work indirectly as a ‘force multiplier’ for China. Against the backdrop of the unprecedented mutual coordination by Moscow and Beijing on global issues, it is conceivable that China was in the loop on the Russian plan to establish a naval base in the Sea of Okhotsk.
The bottom line is that the Russian deployments in northeast Asia bear an uncanny resemblance to China’s militarisation of the artificial islands in the South China Sea. Both powers are resorting to a show of force. Indeed, both have vastly superior military capability in comparison with the parties who contest their territorial claims.
Taken to a logical conclusion, both Russia and China are asserting their will. Japan of course finds itself between the rock and a hard place. But Russia and China are also signaling that the US’ pivot to Asia would have severe limitations in Northeast Asia.
Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.