Russia Boosts Military Presence On Japanese-Claimed Islands As Tokyo May Arm Ukraine With Patriot SAMs

In a move that could rattle the Japanese government, Russia has allegedly built several surveillance bases in the disputed Chishima archipelago or the Kuril Islands.

During a meeting with the military, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu disclosed last week that several surveillance bases or observation posts were being built in the northern regions and the Chishima archipelago, known as the Kuril Islands in Russia.

The Defense Minister reportedly stressed that the Russian military was expanding the capability of coastal communication infrastructure to strengthen the navy’s response capabilities. He did not, however, offer specific details about these bases. EurAsian Times could not independently corroborate these claims.

Shoigu said identical facilities were being used by Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF) to gather information for the invasion of Ukraine. The surveillance equipment used on these bases was reportedly similar to the equipment used by the BSF in monitoring the Black Sea region. Incidentally, surveillance from the BSF bases has been critical for the Russian military to shoot down drones.

The announcement caused a frenzy among military watchers, and speculation was rife that the decision could have been influenced by the growing cooperation between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) and the United States military.

The Soviet soldiers captured the Kuril Islands in the last stages of World War II. These Islands separate the Sea of Okhotsk in Japan from the Pacific Ocean. While Russia considers the Kuril Islands an integral part of the Russian Federation, Japan also claims the region and refers to it as the Northern Territories (NT).

Some speculative reports have emerged claiming that the construction of these spy bases could be a Russian response to Japan aiding Ukraine in the ongoing war. While there is no evidence of this, Japan did agree to cooperate with the US to support Ukraine with weapons.

Reports from earlier this year hinted that as part of its “indirect military aid” to Ukraine, Japan was poised to provide surface-to-air missiles to the United States, whose stockpiles had depleted as a result of its assistance to Ukraine. A decision was expected to be made at the summit between the heads of state of the two countries in April, but there has been no update yet.

Earlier, Japan relaxed its stringent defense equipment transfer laws to allow the export of next-generation fighter jets to its key allies. PM Kishida’s Cabinet approved the updated guidelines of the “three principles on transfer of defense equipment and technology” after his government agreed to revise defense export rules.

The possibility of Japanese Patriot missiles showing up in Ukraine has disturbed Russia. Russia’s recently-appointed ambassador to Japan threatened Tokyo with dire consequences and punitive action if Patriot missile systems made in Japan under license from the United States were to be directed to Ukraine.

Patriot missile system
File Image: Patriot missile system

Although Russia did not cite Japan’s “indirect military aid to Ukraine” as a reason for expanding spying efforts along the island, some military observers have highlighted that it could be part of Russia’s ploy to dissuade Japan from breaching obvious boundaries. For more than two years since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Japan remained reluctant to supply Kyiv’s forces, unlike its allies in the West.

When asked whether Russia was expanding surveillance along Kuril to punish Japan, a military analyst who did not want to be named told EurAsian Times, “Part of the goal might be to corner Japan to prevent the Patriots from being dispatched to Ukraine. Alternatively, though, it might be intended to strengthen its surveillance in the Pacific as Japan undergoes military modernization. Russia is fully invested in Ukraine, and the Kremlin knows it cannot have its other frontiers unattended. These installations would keep an eye on what Japan is up to in the region. These sites are also likely to be very well protected.”

According to analysts, Russia is afraid that the US or Japan will militarize the area, which is why it cannot give up the sovereignty of these islands when thousands of US troops are already stationed in Japan.

If that were to happen, Russia’s military position in the Far East would be seriously jeopardized. The loss of safe passage for the Russian Navy via the straits of Soya and Spanberg is a significant concern as they serve as vital channels for vessels based in Vladivostok to navigate toward the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk.

Russia Has Been Militarizing Kuril Islands 

The four Kuril islands are known by different names in Russia and Japan: Shikotan, Habomai Islets/Khabomai, Kunashiri/Kunashir, and Etorofu/Iturup.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Japan slapped sanctions on Russia. However, on March 21, 2022, in response to the sanctions, Moscow withdrew from talks to resolve this decades-old territorial dispute as well as negotiations over joint economic activities in the South Kuril islands.

Philippines-based analyst Miguel Miranda told EurAsian Times, “Beyond the Kuril Islands, there’s a clear pattern of hostile behavior toward Japan that Russia has maintained for years. These include suspicious flights of ELINT aircraft and bombers around Japan’s airspace and unexplained appearances by naval ships in the waters off Japan’s EEZ. The war in Ukraine is surely a sticking point, but even before that, Moscow and Tokyo couldn’t see eye-to-eye on many issues.”

Further, the US-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) earlier published a report noting that 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. This militarization started taking shape in 2015, as per the report.

The Kuril Islands with Russian names. Since 1945, all islands northeast of Hokkaido have been administered by Russia. (Wikipedia)

In late 2022, Moscow announced the deployment of the Bastion coastal missile system on Paramushir island, a part of the Kuril Islands.

More recently, in January this year, Moscow’s plans to develop the Kuril Islands, including the placement of additional weapons there, were revealed by Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of the Russian Security Council.

”The Kurils will develop actively, and their strategic role will grow in parallel, including the deployment of new weapons there,” the senior Russian official wrote on VKontakte.

Reacting to a statement made by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that Tokyo was still pursuing the signing of a peace treaty with Moscow and settling its territorial dispute, Medvedev stated that “nobody is opposed to a peace treaty,” considering that Japan is aware of several important points, including the fact that Russia intends to develop Kurils. He stressed, “This is not a `disputed region’, this is Russia.”