Russia has deployed the Bastion coastal missile system on Paramushir island, a part of an island chain called the Kuril Islands, stretching between the Japanese island of Hokkaido at its southern end and the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula at its northern end.
“The crew of the Bastion coastal missile system (BRK) of the Pacific Fleet (Pacific Fleet) took up duty in the northern part of the Kuril ridge on Paramushir Island. Coastal missile men of the Pacific Fleet will keep a round-the-clock watch to control the adjacent water area and strait zones,” the Russian Ministry of Defense said on December 5.
The ministry further said that shortly before the deployment of the coastal missile system, an autonomous military camp had also been installed on the island, which consists of accommodation, recreation, and food for personnel that should suffice to sustain year-round service.
Also, technical structures and storage facilities have been installed for equipment operation and maintenance.
Territorial Dispute Between Russia And Japan
Kuril islands separate the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean, and they are administered by Russia but also claimed by Japan which refers to them as Northern Territories (NT).
The erstwhile Soviet Union conquered the Kuril Islands at the end of World War 2 (WW2), and since then, Moscow has considered them an integral part of Russia. The two countries remain at war, with Japan having competing claims over the islands.
The four islands are known by different names in Russia and Japan — Shikotan, Habomai Islets/Khabomai, Kunashiri/Kunashir, and Etorofu/Iturup.
On March 21, in response to Japanese sanctions on Russia, Moscow withdrew from talks to resolve this decades-old territorial dispute and negotiations over joint economic activities in the South Kuril islands.
Reports suggest that Moscow has stationed about 3,500 troops, tanks, self-propelled artillery, and rockets on Etorofu and Kunashiri islands to maintain effective Russian control over the islands.
These forces come under the command of Russia’s Eastern Military District, headquartered in Khabarovsk. Japan’s Defense Ministry estimates that about 80,000 troops are under this command in normal times.
The islands are strategically important for Russia, as they guarantee safe access to the Pacific Ocean. In 2012, the then-Obama administration announced America’s “Pivot to East Asia,” which led Russian President Putin to think about his own “pivot” to the Far East.
Analysts say that with thousands of US troops already stationed in Japan, Russia cannot cede control of these islands out of fear that the US or Japan may militarize the territory.
If that happens, Russia’s Far Eastern military presence will come under grave threat. It will lose safe passage through two critical straits – Soya & Spanberg – that are essential routes for Russian naval ships stationed in Vladivostok to sail towards the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean.
According to the US-based think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia has been consistently bolstering its military presence on the Kuril islands in recent months, which “has largely flown under the radar” because of all the attention grabbed by the war in Ukraine.
“Russia’s moves to increase its presence suggest that the islands will continue to play a detrimental role in the future of Russian-Japanese relations and that Japan and the United States should deepen consultations regarding Russian activities in the region,” the report said.
Was Russia Preparing To Attack Japan?
EurAsian Times reported in November that Russia was preparing to attack Japan in the summer of 2021, months before President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, according to an alleged letter from a whistleblower at Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).
In the letter, the whistleblower alleges that in August 2021, Russia was seriously preparing for a localized military conflict with Japan. He suggested that Russia instead chose to launch an invasion inside Ukraine months later.
According to the whistleblower, dubbed ‘Wind of Change,’ Russia thinks that Japan may be interested in retaking the Kuril islands, as they represent the country’s status as a loser of World War 2 and prevent it from having an official military force and a foreign intelligence service.
Therefore, retaking the Kuril islands would mean revising Japan’s postwar status, according to the Russian geopolitical outlook. Moscow fears the US may be interested in helping Japan retake the Kuril islands to ensure Japan’s support in a potential future conflict with China.
The whistleblower alleged that the FSB was directed to undertake an information campaign against Japan in Russian society to “form a basis for an attack on Japan based on the narrative that the Japanese had a disposition for Nazism. And they should have demilitarized after the war, but they violate these regulations, creating risks for Russia.”
Japan Concerned By Russia’s Cooperation With China
As stated earlier, Russia fears the US could help Japan retake the Kuril islands to ensure Tokyo’s support in a potential future conflict with China. Therefore, Russia is increasing the scope of its military cooperation with China.
Only days before the Bastion coastal missile system deployment on Paramushir island, Russian and Chinese nuclear bombers conducted coordinated air patrols.
An air group comprising strategic missile carriers Tu-95MS of Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) and strategic bombers H-6K of the PLA Air Force carried out air patrols over the Japan and East China Seas.
The bombers were escorted by the fighter jets of both countries during some stages of the patrol.
The recent joint patrols were significant because they marked the first time the Russian and Chinese strategic bombers made cross-landings at the airfields of both countries.
Increasing military cooperation between Russia and China is seen as a significant threat by Japan, which has a territorial dispute with both countries.
In September 2022, Russian and Chinese warships participated in a joint exercise in the Sea of Japan as part of the Vostok-2022 war games hosted by Russia, during which the navies of both countries collaborated to destroy a “hostile submarine.”
As per the report by Sputnik, a simulated attack was launched after a Russian Ka-27PL anti-submarine warfare helicopter detected signs of a suspected target – a submarine in the Sea of Japan.