Vladivostok Photo: iStock
Vladivostok Photo: iStock

Russian President Vladimir Putin will this week embark on a mini-tour of the country’s Far East region, with analysts warning to watch out for loud statements, especially if the trip includes a mooted visit to the disputed Kuril Islands. The tour is scheduled for Feb. 19-22. According to Asia Times sources, the president will visit the Khabarovsk and Kamchatka territories, as well as the Sakhalin area, within which lie the Kuril island group, part of which is claimed by Japan. Japan’s refer to the islands as its “Northern Territories”.

The trip is expected to start in the city of Khabarovsk, where Putin will inspect houses built for victims of a 2013 flood – the largest in the area for a century. Damage from the flooding spread as far as northeast China and left 35,000 Russians homeless. The president will then move to Komsomolsk-on-Amur, site of the Far East’s largest oil refinery and of the factory that produces the Sukhoi SuperJet civilian airliner. In the city, the president will visit several large construction projects and hold meetings.

The itinerary in Kamchatka and Sakhalin is still unknown and may even be scrapped, according to Ildus Yarulin, head of the regional branch of the Russian Society of Political Scientists. If it does take place, however, it’s likely that Putin will pay special attention to military bases on the Kuril Islands, Yarulin said.

“The Kuril Islands are part of the Sakhalin region and a border area. Everyone understands the importance of creating a strong fortified military base there. It is an important military and strategic zone,” Yarulin said.

Putin’s visit may touch on the issue of where to place a new naval base proposed for the islands. The construction of such a base was touted in October last year by Deputy Chair of the Committee on Defense and Security of the Federation Council, Franz Klintsevich.

The islands are already host to a division of the Eastern Military District. In November 2016, Russia placed the coastal missile systems “Bastion” and “Bal” on the Kuril islands of Iturup and Kunashir to add to the anti-aircraft missile system Tor-M2U installed there a year earlier.

However, the main purpose of Putin’s visit to Sakhalin would be to be updated on the Kuril ownership dispute with Japan, Yarulin said.

Moscow and Tokyo have yet to sign a peace treaty following WWII. One obstacle is a territorial dispute over ownership of the southern part of the Kuril island chain. After the war, the archipelago was claimed by the Soviet Union based on an international convention. Japan, however, retains claim to the islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai, citing a bilateral Treatise on Trade and Borders of 1855.

Today, both countries seem to favor active dialogue to resolve the dispute. In December 2016, Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe signed an agreement to begin joint consultations on the issue. The document implies strengthening of relations in the field of energy, business, and industrialization of the Far East. In January 2018, Tokyo announced that it is preparing for new talks, to include, among other things, the possibility of joint economic activities on southern Kuril islands.

Parallel to this, Russia is developing the Kuril military base. Recently military exercises were held here. Still, any kind of resolution would be a win-win. Abe will lose political capital if he fails to resolve the Kuril dispute given the amount of time he has spent dealing with the issue, analysts say. Russia too would be in a losing position as it would miss out on Japanese investment should the talks go awry.

The last stop-off of Putin’s visit will be the Kamchatka territory. The main purpose there will be to inspect the development of gold mining in the region, said Yarulin.

“The region has exceeded its planned targets in gold mining. Perhaps, we’ll hear some good numbers for potential mineral reserves in the area and plans for their future development,” Yarulin said.

However, the most important goal of Putin’s visit is likely to be his local speeches ahead of the March 18 presidential elections. Putin is likely to speak on his program for the next presidential term while demonstrating to Asian partners his commitment to developing Russia’s Far East region. Abe’s next meeting with Putin is scheduled for around March-April, probably just after the elections.

“This is a move that kind of says that while Putin has not yet been re-elected, he is confident of victory and planning for work beyond” the election,” Yarulin said.

Some major statements could also follow. Putin may announce the opening of a residence in the Far East, which would be a good strategic move, Yarulin told Asia Times. “A Far Eastern presidential residence will give him an opportunity to meet heads of state of Asia-Pacific countries there,” as opposed to asking them to make the lengthy trip to Moscow or Sochi,” the expert said.

The Far East region takes in 6.17 million square kilometers, about 36% of the country’s total. The region is split into nine territories: Amur, Jewish Autonomous District, Magadan, Sakhalin, Kamchatka, Primorsky, Khabarovsk, Sakha (Yakutia), Jewish and Chukotka. The region borders China and North Korea in the south, Japan in the southeast and the US across the Bering Strait in the extreme north-east.

It is rich in raw materials. It contains 98% of Russia’s diamonds, 80% of its tin, 50% of its gold and 40% of its fishing resource. Main industries include extraction and processing of non-ferrous metals, diamonds, fishing and timber, shipbuilding and ship repair. However, the region’s population as of January 1, 2016 was a tiny 6.2 million people – 4.2% of the national populace, despite such incentives as a program whereby any citizen of Russia can get receive ownership of one hectare of land in the Far East for free if he/she develops it for five years.

Last year, speaking at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Putin said that regional development is “among our unconditional priorities, the most important part of the strategy to increase the competitiveness of Russia, its economy and human capital.”

Among state measures to bolster the region’s economy has been the creation of 18 special economic zones; so far, around 200 companies have taken advantage of the SEZs, with the total value of their projects estimated at $38 billion. Other measures include the designation of free-port status for Vladivostok, which allows for tax and customs breaks, cutting red tape to lure investment and the introduction of an electronic visa regime for visitors from 18 nations.

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