The Bastion Missile System: A Symbol of Power and Foreign Policy Tool

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 190

The Russian-built Bastion coastal defense missile system

The militarization of Russia has reached such an extent that not only its military force as such has become a foreign policy tool, but even individual weapons systems are also being used for this purpose. In recent weeks, the coastal defense missile system Bastion has acquired the role of a foreign policy tool. It denies the enemy access to a 600-km-long (372 miles) stretch of the coast, covering a maritime area of 150,000 sq. kilometers (57,915 sq. miles), and can defend the approaches to a political and administrative district as part of the latter’s joint defensive system.

Recently, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin that Bastion was used in a real battle situation in Syria for the first time. Ironically, it was not fired at sea targets. According to Shoigu, Bastion struck terrorist bases on the ground. In a few days, the Baltic Fleet picked up the baton. As soon as the United States expressed concern about the deployment of the air defense systems S-400 and Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad (Washington considers unacceptable the creation of a no-fly zone over the Baltic sea), a source told Interfax that Bastion has been deployed in the westernmost region of Russia (Interfax, November 21). Thus, the complex of coastal defense was used to give a signal to Washington that Moscow would strongly react to any demarches.

The next day, the newspaper of the Pacific Fleet, “Boyevaya Vakhta,” informed that Bastion appeared at the South Kuril Islands—at Iturup and Kunashir. At first glance, the article did not appear to be timed well, as Putin plans to pay a visit to Japan in mid-December. The Russian president has hinted that he was ready to give positive consideration to Tokyo’s demand to have the Southern Kuril Islands returned to Japan, after being under Russian administration since World War II. Evidently, while Moscow was making promises to Tokyo, the Russian Ministry of Defense deployed the Bastion to the disputed islands.

Trying to smooth the awkwardness, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that he did not see any problems. “In our view this should in no way harm the fast trends that have developed in our relations with Tokyo in terms of thorough preparations for President Putin’s forthcoming visit to Japan and the continuing contacts over ways of advancing bilateral relations, in particular, in the economy, and from the standpoint of talks on problems related to a peace treaty,” he said (TASS, 23 November). However, Tokyo had expressed displeasure at the highest level. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed regret about the deployment of the Russian anti-ship missiles (TASS, November 25).

Moscow signaled that a compromise is possible only in relation to Habomai and Shikotan—two of the four disputed islands. At the same time, it is feasible that the deployment of the Bastion on Kunashir and Iturup is an important part of a complex diplomatic game. After all, the wisest of the Kremlin strategists must have foreseen that at the end of a day, Russian–Japanese negotiations would inevitably come to a standstill. It is impossible to imagine a situation in which Putin, who carefully created his image of the “gatherer of Russian lands,” would give back any islands to Japan. Similarly, it is impossible for the Japanese government to give up demands for the return of all four islands. To avoid the deadlock, Moscow creates in advance what the Russian President calls a “negotiating position” (this is how he described his latest ultimatum to the United States about the cancellation of the plutonium destruction agreement, see EDM October 21). By this logic, Moscow believes it needs to stuff the Kuril Islands with weapons, and then have prolonged talks on the demilitarization of the Islands. Thus, it should be easy to provide an illusion of a positive momentum for a long period of time.

At the same time, the forward deployment of the Bastion can change significantly the strategic situation in a particular region. Russian analysts write with satisfaction that the Bastion can shoot not only through a considerable part of the territory of Poland, Germany and the Baltic countries, but also it can actually block the entrance to the Baltic Sea from the Atlantic (Voenno-Promishlenniy Kurier, November 30). The situation in the Far East looks even more serious. The Bastion deployed to the Kuril Islands is able to block any naval activity in the area of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Russia’s coastal defense systems deployed in Crimea are also capable, in the opinion of the chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov, to block the Bosporus (RBK September 14). As a rule, the Bastion is deployed simultaneously with the newest S-400 air defense systems. Thus, in peacetime, effective anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubbles can be created. Perhaps a tough confrontation between Russia and NATO could begin in this sphere. After all, the Alliance announced its intention to strengthen its naval group in the Baltic and Black seas. To counter the Bastion, NATO is more likely to use warships and planes, equipped with cruise missiles.

Today, the deployment of the Bastion has practical value. In Putin’s eyes, this coastal defense system is a symbol of Russia’s military presence and demonstrates the seriousness of its intentions. In the documentary about Crimea’s annexation, Putin stated: “So, at a certain point, we deployed these coastal systems Bastion to make it clear that Crimea was under safe protection” (CNN, March 16).

The Bastion was used in Syria without any military sense, just for the sole purpose of demonstration. Military expert, Navy Captain Konstantin Sivkov (Ret.) believes that the firing of these rockets was made for “experimental” purposes, in order to find out whether it is possible to use the sea rocket Bastion for strikes against land targets. “These missiles have a homing warhead designed for sea targets, shooting at ground targets is not provided. In such cases, the deviation from the target can reach about 150 meters,” explained the expert (RIA, November 15). Thus, this coastal defense missile system has been turned into an important foreign policy tool and a symbol of national power.