By Tatsuya Fukumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOne of the reasons that negotiations between Japan and Russia over the return of the northern territories continue to make little progress is Russia’s military situation. Here, we look into the strategic value of the northern territories to Russia and the tasks ahead for Japan, based on analysis from Shinji Hyodo, director of the Regional Studies Department at the Defense Ministry’s National Institute for Defense Studies who is an expert on Russian security.
When thinking about the strategic value of the four northern islands, we need to take a comprehensive view of Russia’s security.
The first thing to bear in mind is that the presidential decree issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2012 set out a national defense policy of reinforcing sea power in order to ensure Russia’s strategic interests in the Arctic and the Far East.
The Arctic Sea and the far eastern Sea of Okhotsk are connected by the Northern Sea Route, the shortest route linking Europe and Asia. It can be thought that Russia is intensifying its sea power in both regions based on an assessment that military influence needs to be strengthened, given the possibility of an increasingly active use of this route by various countries in the future.
Russia places great importance, in military terms, on the Arctic Sea, where sea ice is decreasing due to global warming. In addition to the four integrated strategic headquarters located within domestic military districts, the Putin administration established a fifth integrated strategic headquarters in Severomorsk, on the Arctic coast, strengthening its defense setup.
On the other hand, during the Cold War, the Sea of Okhotsk became a “sanctuary” as an area in which the former Soviet Union deployed nuclear-powered submarines with ballistic missiles (SSBN) and secured second-strike capability in terms of nuclear strategy. When the Cold War came to an end, the relative strategic value of the Sea of Okhotsk was considered to have diminished, but with the birth of the Northern Sea Route, the value to Russia of the Sea of Okhotsk rose once more.
“There is a concept of spheres of influence in Russia’s security,” Hyodo pointed out. “Conventionally, its sphere of influence was considered to be only the former Soviet bloc, but an overreaction to the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) led to the Georgian conflict and the Ukrainian crisis. In recent years, great importance is being placed on the ‘offshore sphere of influence’ of the Arctic Sea and the Far East, where military deployment by other countries via the Northern Sea Route is becoming possible.”
Hyodo believes that Russia conceives of these two sea areas, connected by the Northern Sea Route, as a “surface,” and is moving to ensure national interests.
Significance of islands
The growing strategic value of the Sea of Okhotsk is also influencing Russian military deployment in the northern territories and the Chishima Islands.
The Russian military has about 3,500 soldiers stationed on the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu. In November, it became apparent that the Russian military deployed state-of-the-art surface-to-ship missiles on both of these islands.
What is the intention on the Russian side?
“If we look at the Far East in its entirety, the military modernization of Kunashiri and Etorofu alone does not stand out. The deployment of the surface-to-ship missiles is probably aimed at restraining the passage of ships through the Kunashiri Channel and the Northern Sea Route,” Hyodo explained.
The Japanese government is paying particular attention to Matua Island, or Matsuwa Island, in the middle of the Chishima island chain. In May, the Russian Defense Ministry began a field survey envisioning the construction of a new base for the Pacific Fleet.
Matua is an island where the former Japanese military was deployed during World War II. There is a runway which it used. If a base is constructed here, it will also become a focal point for airpower.
Concerning the moves to construct a base on Matua, Hyodo said: “The Russian defense minister has stated that this is ‘one aspect of Arctic defense.’ This is military expansion with a stern eye on the Northern Sea Route. It is natural to consider that Kunashiri and Etorofu are gaining additional value in terms of Arctic defense.”
For Russia, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Chishima Islands and the northern territories are growing in strategic value. However, even among the four northern islands, the two islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu have a significant difference from that of the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan Island.
The Kunashiri Channel, which lies between the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu, is deep and it is thought to be a strategic point for Russian SSBNs coming and going between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean.
“The far eastern SSBN hub is on the east coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the importance of the Kunashiri Channel is diminishing,” said a former Self-Defense Forces officer. But if the two islands are returned to Japan, Russia would lose the Kunashiri Channel, which would affect its naval supremacy, including over the Northern Sea Route. These circumstances are behind Russia’s continued refusal to return Kunashiri and Etorofu islands.