The Kurile Islands: a Key to Russia’s Maritime Nuclear Strategy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 200

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev take pictures during his visit to Kunashiri Island. (Reuters)

This week Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, after completing a state visit to Vietnam, landed on the southern Kurile Island of Kunashir (Japanese name –Kunashiri) which has been under Russian rule since 1945. Japan claims the so-called Northern Territories of the Southern Kuriles: the Habomai islets, Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup (Japanese name –Etorofu). Last September, Medvedev told journalists he wanted to visit Kunashir after a visit to China, but was prevented from doing so by bad weather (Interfax, September 29). The Japanese government warned Moscow that a visit to the Northern Territories “will seriously damage relations,” but this warning was rejected as “an insult,” undermining Russian territorial integrity (Interfax, October 29).

The weather on the Southern Kuriles is notoriously bad and the only airstrip on Kunashir (built by the Japanese Imperial Military before 1945) is badly equipped and too short to handle a presidential aircraft. Medvedev first landed on Sakhalin Island and changed to a smaller plane to fly to Kunashir, escorted by Su-27 fighters. There is not a meter of decent paved road on Kunashir, so Medvedev and his entourage were driven around in Nissan Patrol SUV’s. Medvedev stayed for only three hours and luckily flew out before an incoming storm that might have trapped him on Kunashir for days or weeks. During his short stay, Medvedev promised 19 billion rubles ($620 million) of aid until 2015 to develop the Kuriles and improve the miserable conditions for the 10,300 impoverished and largely unemployed Southern Kurile Russian inhabitants (Kommersant, November 2).

Yet, a political storm was unavoidable: Tokyo deplored the visit and recalled its Moscow ambassador “for consultations.” The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in turn slammed the Japanese actions as “unacceptable,” stressing that “this is our land” (Interfax, November 2). Medvedev is scheduled to visit Japan next week to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit and it may turn out to be a stormy encounter. The Kremlin has announced Medvedev is planning further visits to the Kurile Islands that may further spoil relations. The Japanese business community is afraid that continued political tension may seriously impede commerce (Kommersant, November 3; Yomiuri Shimbun, November 4).

Moscow claims the Kurile Islands and implies that Japan must simply accept. At the same time sources in the foreign ministry claim the territorial problem of the Northern Territories must not hinder business ties with Japan. Russia needs massive investment to develop the Far East and Siberia and wants Japan to compete with China, not allowing any investor to dominate. Despite the harsh rhetoric, foreign ministry officials imply that Moscow is still ready to hand over to Japan the control of the Shikotan and the Habomai islets, but not Kunashir and Iturup (Kommersant, November 3).

The Japanese seem to be baffled as to why Moscow chose this time to dramatically worsen relations. Medvedev’s visit to Kunashir followed a confrontation between Tokyo and Beijing over the arrest of a Chinese fishing boat captain near the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea –claimed by China. Beijing and Moscow may be synchronizing their pressure against Japan (The Japan Times, November 3). The Southern Kuriles provide Russia with access to valuable fisheries, holding significant mineral deposits and could sit at the heart of major new oil and gas discoveries. Any territorial concessions would be extremely unpopular in Russia and by publicly snubbing Japan, Medvedev is using nationalistic passions to promote his internal standing against Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, in a possible contest for the presidency in 2012 ( November 3).

However, Russia is not a democracy and the populace will not decide whether Putin or Medvedev will occupy the Kremlin. Handing over to Japan the Habomai and Shikotan Islets would give away important fisheries and other possible natural riches, while going against nationalistic passions. Handing over two of the Northern Territories would create a “precedent” for rewriting the post-World War II borders just the same as giving away all four. But Moscow does not seem to hesitate, apparently hoping that the government-controlled vicious TV propaganda machine may change public opinion any way the authorities wish.

Kunashir and Iturup differ from Habomai and Shikotan primarily in military-strategic value being the southern tip of the Kurile Island chain that separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean.  Habomai and Shikotan form the Lesser Kurile Islands chain to the east. In times of conflict, the Russian military could mine the straits between the Kurile Islands and effectively isolate the Sea of Okhotsk, allowing strategic nuclear submarines with ballistic missiles to deploy in relative safety.

After the end of the Cold War the military significance of the Kuriles seemed to diminish. The 6 newer Delta-4 strategic submarines that have been modernized in recent years and will be in service until 2020 or 2025 are permanently based in the Barents Sea (the Northern Fleet) together with one older Delta-3. Only 4 old Delta-3 strategic submarines are today deployed in the Pacific Fleet in the Vilyuchinsk naval base in Kamchatka. The Delta-3’s have been in service for more than 30 years and all are scheduled to be scrapped before 2015, seemingly leaving the Pacific Fleet without a maritime strategic ballistic missile capability. But last month it was disclosed that the Pacific Fleet will be boosted by the newest Borey-class strategic nuclear submarines with the new Bulava SS-NX-30 ballistic missile. Facilities are already prepared in Vilyuchinsk for the first –the Yury Dolgoruky. As soon as the test launches of the Bulava are completed (officials hope next year), Yuri Dolgoruky will deploy and other Borey submarines will follow (RIA Novosti, October 19).

The Russian navy does not have sufficient numbers of nuclear attack submarines and surface ships to defend the deployment of the newest Borey submarines in the open Pacific. The only safe option seems the semi-closed Sea of Okhotsk, guarded by the Kurile Island chain. To keep the Kuriles, Moscow needs massive investment to develop the local economy and with Japanese participation (in exchange for Habomai and Shikotan). Moscow seems to be actively pressing for a deal, while handing over control of Kunashir and Iturup is out of the question.