Russia seems to have found a place to deploy its two most modern French-built assault helicopter-carrying ships – in the Far East to help defend the Kurile Islands. The first Russian Mistral will be built by the end of 2013, the second by 2015 and together will reportedly cost some 1.4 billion Euros ($1.9 billion) (RIA Novosti, February 9). Defense Minister, Anatoliy Serdyukov, earlier this month inspected the Russian garrison (the 18th machinegun/artillery division) entrenched in Cold War era bunkers on the southern Kurile Island of Kunashir (Japanese name –Kunashiri) and Iturup (Japanese name –Etorofu), under Russian rule since 1945 and claimed by Japan together with the Habomai islets and Shikotan as the so-called Northern Territories. Serdyukov promised to reinforce and rearm the Russian garrison (ITAR-TASS, February 4). After that a flurry of controversial statements followed, apparently, indicating disagreement about concrete details of the planned military build-up.
One “high-ranking source in the General Staff” told the semi-official news agency, Interfax, that the 18th division will be transformed into a brigade, though the number of service personnel will remain approximately 3,500 and that there was no need to send to the Kuriles long-range S-300 or S-400 antiaircraft missiles. According to Army-General (retired) Yuri Yakubov, the former commander of the Far East Military District, the garrison of the South Kurile Islands already has relatively modern T-80 tanks, but it needs new light armored vehicles and additional helicopters (Interfax, February 15).
Another “high-ranking source in the General Staff” told the state-run RIA Novosti news agency: “There is no need to reshape the 18th division. New brigades are intended for maneuverable warfare, which on the South Kuriles is absolutely impossible. The 18th division is perfectly formed as an entrenched fortress garrison, but it will be reinforced by an air-space defense missile brigade, possibly with S-400 missiles” (RIA, Novosti, February 15).
Of the 45 permanent readiness antiaircraft missile regiments in the Air Force Antiaircraft Missile Troops presently only one with S-400’s has been deployed to defend Moscow. This week a second S-400 regiment officially received its missiles and other equipment. The new regiment will have two divisions, each with eight launchers, and each launcher has four missile tubes. Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of the second S-400 regiment, the chief of the Air Force Antiaircraft Missile Troops, Major-General Sergei Popov, told journalists: “it does not make sense to send S-400’s to the South Kuriles” adding that shorter range Buk missiles could do the job. According to Popov, during the Cold War an antiaircraft radar regiment was deployed on the South Kuriles, a fighter regiment on the nearby Sakhalin Island and “its planes could intercept any target in minutes.” Of course, Popov added, if orders are given, the S-400’s will be sent (RIA Novosti, February 16).
The threat of Japanese soldiers storming the Kurile beaches to retake the Northern Territories by force seems remote, but revamping the Russian garrison seems sure to go ahead. Serdyukov has announced the airstrip at the Buryvestnik airbase on Iturup will be extended to receive heavy Il-76 transport planes to facilitate troop reinforcements in a time of conflict (Interfax, February 9). During a meeting with Serdyukov and the minister for regional development, Viktor Basargin, Medvedev pledged to fully support efforts to boost military capabilities and civilian infrastructure in the Kuriles (www.kremlin.ru, February 9).
In 2006, a special federal program was approved to spend 18 billion Rubles ($612 million) from 2007 to 2015 to develop civilian infrastructure in the Kuriles. According to Basargin, 9 billion rubles ($306 million) have been spent and the Kurile federal program “is one of the few that were not cut during the financial crisis.” Basargin requested an additional 8 billion rubles ($273 million) to add to the Kurile program, including 1.5 billion ($51 million) in 2011 and Medvedev agreed. Officially, the Russian population of the South Kuriles is 16,400 which apparently include several thousand military personnel and families (some 3,500 in the 18th division plus the air force, the navy and border guards). The Kurile federal program has been tentatively increased to 26 billion rubles ($885 million) and may exceed $1 billion – according to Basargin, the governor of Sakhalin to which the Kurils administratively belong, has asked for an extra 13 billion rubles ($443 million) (www.kremlin.ru, February 9). This does not include defense spending on rearming and developing military infrastructure in the South Kuriles, the building of a facility to harbor the Mistral assault ships on the Russian mainland and other costs. Taking into account the sparse population of the South Kuriles, the overall investment is huge and clearly reflects a massive strategic commitment overruling other urgent infrastructural problems in Russia at a time when the federal budget is in deficit.
Russia’s First Deputy Defense Minister, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, told journalists: “We need such ships [Mistrals] to defend the Kurile chain that is now defenseless. The army was there before, but now there is no one and we need mobile capabilities to bring in forces rapidly to close gaps in time of need” (Interfax, February 9). But the South Kuriles are already defended and reinforced. Makarov seems to mean the Kurile Islands north of Iturup that Japan does not claim, which housed military bases during the Cold War, and are now abandoned. With the exception of the northern island of Paramushir with reportedly 2,400 inhabitants; the Kurile Islands from Iturup to Kamchatka are uninhabited. It seems the deployment of the Mistrals in the Pacific Fleet is not against Japan, but that the US in preparation for conflict could “leap-frog” the fortified South Kuriles into the undefended and uninhabited central Kuriles to invade the Sea of Okhotsk. To defend the Sea of Okhotsk as a safe haven for nuclear strategic submarines, the Russian military is deploying capabilities to reinforce the entire island chain.
The South Kurile visits by Medvedev and other top officials that have provoked the present diplomatic spat with Tokyo may have been mainly high-level inspections to see that vast federal infrastructural expenditures have not been all stolen, as often happens in Russia. Japan is not a first-class priority in Russian politics or strategic planning. The strategic build up in the Kuriles and of the Pacific Fleet capabilities may not be aimed at Japan or China per se, but the US – Russia’s true present number one strategic concern.