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Russian Military Build-up in the Pacific May Not be Aimed at Japan

 Russia seems to have found a place to deploy its two most modern
French-built assault helicopter-carrying ships – in the Far East to help
defend the Kurile Islands. The first Russian Mistral will be built by
the end of 2013, the second by 2015 and together will reportedly cost
some 1.4 billion Euros ($1.9 billion) (RIA Novosti, February 9). Defense
Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, earlier this month inspected the Russian
garrison (the 18th machinegun/artillery division) entrenched in Cold War
era bunkers on the southern Kurile Island of Kunashir (Japanese name
–Kunashiri) and Iturup (Japanese name –Etorofu), under Russian rule
since 1945 and claimed by Japan together with the Habomai islets and
Shikotan as the so-called Northern Territories. Serdyukov promised to
reinforce and rearm the Russian garrison (ITAR-TASS, February 4). After
that a flurry of controversial statements followed, apparently,
indicating disagreement about concrete details of the planned military
build-up.

One “high-ranking source in the General Staff” told the
semi-official news agency, Interfax, that the 18th division will be
transformed into a brigade, though the number of service personnel will
remain approximately 3,500 and that there was no need to send to the
Kuriles long-range S-300 or S-400 antiaircraft missiles. According to
Army-General (retired) Yuri Yakubov, the former commander of the Far
East Military District, the garrison of the South Kurile Islands already
has relatively modern T-80 tanks, but it needs new light armored
vehicles and additional helicopters (Interfax, February 15).

Another
“high-ranking source in the General Staff” told the state-run RIA
Novosti news agency: “There is no need to reshape the 18th division. New
brigades are intended for maneuverable warfare, which on the South
Kuriles is absolutely impossible. The 18th division is perfectly formed
as an entrenched fortress garrison, but it will be reinforced by an
air-space defense missile brigade, possibly with S-400 missiles” (RIA,
Novosti, February 15).

Of the 45 permanent readiness antiaircraft
missile regiments in the Air Force Antiaircraft Missile Troops
presently only one with S-400’s has been deployed to defend Moscow. This
week a second S-400 regiment officially received its missiles and other
equipment. The new regiment will have two divisions, each with eight
launchers, and each launcher has four missile tubes. Speaking at the
inauguration ceremony of the second S-400 regiment, the chief of the Air
Force Antiaircraft Missile Troops, Major-General Sergei Popov, told
journalists: “it does not make sense to send S-400’s to the South
Kuriles” adding that shorter range Buk missiles could do the job.
According to Popov, during the Cold War an antiaircraft radar regiment
was deployed on the South Kuriles, a fighter regiment on the nearby
Sakhalin Island and “its planes could intercept any target in minutes.”
Of course, Popov added, if orders are given, the S-400’s will be sent
(RIA Novosti, February 16).

The threat of Japanese soldiers
storming the Kurile beaches to retake the Northern Territories by force
seems remote, but revamping the Russian garrison seems sure to go ahead.
Serdyukov has announced the airstrip at the Buryvestnik airbase on
Iturup will be extended to receive heavy Il-76 transport planes to
facilitate troop reinforcements in a time of conflict (Interfax,
February 9).  During a meeting with Serdyukov and the minister for
regional development, Viktor Basargin, Medvedev pledged to fully support
efforts to boost military capabilities and civilian infrastructure in
the Kuriles (www.kremlin.ru, February 9).

In 2006, a special
federal program was approved to spend 18 billion Rubles ($612 million)
from 2007 to 2015 to develop civilian infrastructure in the Kuriles.
According to Basargin, 9 billion rubles ($306 million) have been spent
and the Kurile federal program “is one of the few that were not cut
during the financial crisis.” Basargin requested an additional 8 billion
rubles ($273 million) to add to the Kurile program, including 1.5
billion ($51 million) in 2011 and Medvedev agreed. Officially, the
Russian population of the South Kuriles is 16,400 which apparently
include several thousand military personnel and families (some 3,500 in
the 18th division plus the air force, the navy and border guards). The
Kurile federal program has been tentatively increased to 26 billion
rubles ($885 million) and may exceed $1 billion – according to Basargin,
the governor of Sakhalin to which the Kurils administratively belong,
has asked for an extra 13 billion rubles ($443 million) (www.kremlin.ru,
February 9). This does not include defense spending on rearming and
developing military infrastructure in the South Kuriles, the building of
a facility to harbor the Mistral assault ships on the Russian mainland
and other costs. Taking into account the sparse population of the South
Kuriles, the overall investment is huge and clearly reflects a massive
strategic commitment overruling other urgent infrastructural problems in
Russia at a time when the federal budget is in deficit.

Russia’s
First Deputy Defense Minister, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, told
journalists: “We need such ships [Mistrals] to defend the Kurile chain
that is now defenseless. The army was there before, but now there is no
one and we need mobile capabilities to bring in forces rapidly to close
gaps in time of need” (Interfax, February 9). But the South Kuriles are
already defended and reinforced. Makarov seems to mean the Kurile
Islands north of Iturup that Japan does not claim, which housed military
bases during the Cold War, and are now abandoned. With the exception of
the northern island of Paramushir with reportedly 2,400 inhabitants;
the Kurile Islands from Iturup to Kamchatka are uninhabited. It seems
the deployment of the Mistrals in the Pacific Fleet is not against
Japan, but that the US in preparation for conflict could “leap-frog” the
fortified South Kuriles into the undefended and uninhabited central
Kuriles to invade the Sea of Okhotsk. To defend the Sea of Okhotsk as a
safe haven for nuclear strategic submarines, the Russian military is
deploying capabilities to reinforce the entire island chain.

The
South Kurile visits by Medvedev and other top officials that have
provoked the present diplomatic spat with Tokyo may have been mainly
high-level inspections to see that vast federal infrastructural
expenditures have not been all stolen, as often happens in Russia. Japan
is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic
planning. The strategic build up in the Kuriles and of the Pacific Fleet
capabilities may not be aimed at Japan or China per se, but the US –
Russia’s true present number one strategic concern.