July 25, 2015
By Aleksandr Braterskiy
Translated from Russian by J.Hawk
Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu announced during a MOD collegium that Russia will complete the rearmament of units stationed on the Kuril Islands. The Russian government also wants to assign high priority to their economic development. This level of activity is not welcome by the Japanese who are challenging Russia’s sovereignty over the islands. This theme will be the topic of discussion during Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan by the end of the year, and it’s unlikely a compromise can be found.
Shoygu said that “Eastern Military District forces stationed on Kuril Islands are being rearmed in accordance to plan.” By the end of the year, the islands will receive modern military garrisons for units stationed tehre.
“The garrisons will be built in accordance with already approved designs, which will reduce expenditures associated with their construction and improve their safety in the earthquake-prone zone,” Shoygu said.
Rearmament of the Kuril grouping began during the Medvedev presidency. The core of the grouping is the 18th Machine Gun/Artillery Division under the control of Eastern Military District. There are 3.5 thousand Russian soldiers stationed on the islands, and their weapons include T-80 tanks and Buk-M1 air defense systems, but it’s the submarine base that’s of greatest importance to Russia. They protect the Sea of Okhotsk against foreign submarines.
Russia’s authorities have intensified their level of interests toward the Kurils, and they will be visited shortly by Prime Minister Medvedev. He said on Thursday that the Kuril Islands will become a “rapid development territory.” Kuril Islands have been allocated 70 billion rubles for the next 10 years.
Medvedev’s possible trip has already caused a negative reaction by Japan’s government. Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kisida sent Medvedev a telegram asking him to cancel the trip arguing that it “hurts the feelings of Japanese citizens,” according to TASS. Japanese authorities oppose any trips by Russian officials to these islands and believe they belong to Japan. There is a consensus on that issue along Japan’s entire political spectrum, from conservatists to communists.
Valerin Kistanov, the Director of the Japanese Studies Center of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Science, says that Japan is closely watching Russia’s activities on the islands.
“Russia has lately been paying more attention to the Kurils, which makes the Japanese wary,” Kisanov says. He believes that the Japanese interpret this as a signal Russia is not interested in a dialogue concerning the islands. As of late Japan has been attempting to renew the dialogue concerning the islands’ sovereignty, hoping to raise the issue during Vladimir Putin’s official visit which should take place late in the year. Dmitriy Peskov stated earlier that the date of the visit will be coordinated when Lavrov meets his Japanese counterpart in late August. Russia has said more than once that it’s not against discussing the matter of the islands with Japan, but it will do so only after signing a peace treaty with Japan.
In the event of its signing, on the basis of a Soviet-Japanese declaration Japan could be returned two islands, Shikotan and Haboman, however Japan insists on returning all the islands. Independent military expert Prokhor Tebin says that “even giving two islands back to Japan is not beneficial to Russia from either economic or security standpoint.”
According to Kistanov, the Kuril Islands problem was discussed by Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin, without arriving closer to a compromise. “Japan’s position is as follows: Russia should return all four islands. The most to which it can agree is Japanese sovereignty over all the islands so that they are eventually returned to Japan,” Kistanov explained.
Russia’s attention to the military situation on the Kurils is taking place against the background of strengthening of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. In mid-July Japan adopted legislative changes which allow the Japanese military to be used to help defend its allies outside of the country’s borders. They now also have greater ability to participate in external peacekeeping operations. So far only the lower chamber of the parliament adopted these changes.
The law’s opponents believe that increasing Japan’s military capabilities contradicts the country’s constitution which specifies its military ought to play only a defensive role. A poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun indicates 56% of Japanese are against the laws expanding the military’s role, and 26% are in favor.