Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 32

Often troubled bilateral relations between Russia and Japan took a sideward lurch this week when an announcement that the leaders of the two countries had at last agreed to meet was followed only a day later by reports that Russian bombers had on two occasions violated Japanese airspace. The juxtaposition of events was not entirely unusual; on a number of occasions over the past decade Russian military forces in the Far East have initiated actions seemingly aimed at irritating the Japanese at moments when events have taken a positive turn in the diplomatic arena. It is not clear whether the timing was intentional on this occasion, but the bomber incident cast at least another small cloud over what had already been stormy negotiations to set a date for the next summit meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

The latest chapter in Moscow’s and Tokyo’s oft-times erratic effort to sign a peace treaty agreement–and resolve the crucial Kuril Islands territorial dispute–occurred approximately one month ago when Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono’s visit to Russia ended in acrimony. Reports at the time suggested that the Russians had been disturbed by Kono’s announcement that Putin and Mori would meet for summit talks on February 25-26; although the February meeting had been planned for some time, the Kremlin apparently preferred that the dates not be made public immediately. The disagreement precipitated a clash in which Kono was denied an expected meeting with Putin, and the Russians brusquely informed the Japanese diplomat that the February summit date was off. Tokyo bristled at both the postponement and the treatment handed out to Kono, and there were reportedly angry reactions in Japan over Tokyo’s loss of face in the matter (see the Monitor, January 17, 22).

According to reports this week, however, Moscow and Tokyo patched up their differences and agreed during a January 13 Putin-Mori telephone call to schedule a summit meeting for March 25 in the Russian city of Irkutsk. Exactly how this came about is not clear, but at least one Russian report gloatingly suggested that Mori–who faces an ever-growing array of political problems at home–had backed down and called Putin with a request to reschedule the summit. That this interpretation might contain some truth was suggested by earlier Japanese reports saying that Mori’s government had decided to “freeze” relations with Moscow for several months–possibly as a means to punish the Kremlin for its actions in January. The Russian daily Kommersant suggested that Mori’s reversal was caused by his domestic political problems, and it wondered whether Russia might not profit during the March 25 meeting from Mori’s political weakness at home (Kommersant, Russian agencies, February 14; Japan Times, January 24, February 14).

Yesterday’s bomber incident suggested just how fragile friendly relations between Tokyo and Moscow remain. According to the Japanese government, four Russian aircraft were spotted late yesterday morning in Japanese airspace near Rebun Island (off the northernmost island of Hokkaido), and exited after Japanese military jets scrambled in response. Another two aircraft were seen in roughly the same area–also in Japanese airspace–several hours later. Of the six Russian planes involved, the Japanese identified four as Tu-22 “Backfire” bombers; Russian sources said that the other two were Su-27 fighter-interceptors. In response to the incidents the Japanese Foreign Ministry protested to the Russian ambassador to Japan, Aleksandr Panov, and “strongly called for the Russian government to make clear the cause of this intrusion and take steps to prevent it ever happening again.” Reports out of Tokyo said that it was the first violation of Japanese airspace by Russian military aircraft since 1995.

Russian defense officials, meanwhile, “categorically denied” that the Russian aircraft had ever entered Japanese airspace. In Moscow, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev told reporters that “we again analyzed all the actions of our pilots, and there were no violations of Japan’s airspace.” An Air Force spokesman was quoted as saying that “we fly without violating anything…. We don’t complain when every day a dozen NATO planes fly along our shores.” Russian reports suggested that the Russian aircraft may have flown over the four disputed South Kuril islands which are still the main bone of contention in Russian-Japanese peace treaty negotiations and the primary obstacle to fully normalized bilateral relations.

Regardless of whether the Russian aircraft did actually violate Japanese airspace, their appearance near Japan continues a pattern of behavior evident since the end of NATO’s air war in Kosovo, when Russia began sending the occasional military aircraft on training missions along the borders of NATO countries. In late June of 1999, for example, U.S. fighters intercepted two Tu-95s near Iceland and escorted them around the island. Then, in September of last year, U.S. radar detected a pair of Tu-95s heading toward Alaska. U.S. fighters were sent to intercept them, but the Tu-95s turned back before crossing into U.S. air space. More recently, the Russian air force tried to grab some headlines by twice buzzing the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk while it was refueling in the Sea of Japan (AP, Reuter, Russian agencies, February 14; Japan Times, February 15; see also the Monitor, December 5, 2000).

Analysts have suggested that such Russian flights represent a bit of muscle flexing by the country’s beleaguered armed forces, and may be an attempt to prove to the world that Russia remains a potent military force. With regard to this week’s flights, however, the move may have been intended to put Japan in its place and to demonstrate that Russian control of the Kuril Islands is nothing to be trifled with. It is worth noting, for example, that in a separate exercise the Russian air force also sent bombers along Norway’s coast yesterday. The bombers reportedly did not cross into Norwegian airspace. In addition, a Norwegian defense official said that Moscow had told Oslo of its plans to increase air force activity from bases on the Kola Peninsula and northwestern Russia (AP, February 14). Moscow apparently provided Japan with no such advisories, a perhaps noteworthy oversight given both the approach of the Russian-Japanese summit and what the two sides have claimed of late is increased cooperation between their two military establishments.