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Russia flexes military muscle over Japan

Rift between the neighbors deepens as Russia pledges to deploy missiles to contested Northern Territories.

Japan seiji maehara northern territories russia 2011 03 10Enlarge
Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara speaks at the foreign ministry in Tokyo, on Feb. 8, 2011. Maehara announced he would visit Russia from Feb. 10, one day after the Northern Territories Day when Prime Minister Naoto Kan called Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's visit three months ago to a disputed Pacific island chain an "unforgivable outrage." (Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

OSAKA, Japan — With his shock resignation as foreign minister this week, Seiji Maehara not only deepened the political crisis facing Japan’s government, he also bequeathed his successor a simmering territorial row with Russia.

The dispute over the Northern Territories — a group of four islands just six miles off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island — has taken on a forbidding tone that threatens to drive a wedge between the two East Asian powers.

The dispute stretches back to the days after Japan’s surrender in World War II, when Soviet forces invaded the islands, expelling residents and, over time, turning them into a Russian enclave that gave the then Soviet Union a buffer on its far eastern maritime border.

Tokyo has never relinquished its claims to the islands, citing the Soviet Union’s failure to sign a 1951 peace treaty that formally established postwar borders in the region. The dispute means Tokyo and Moscow are still formally at war.

While the number of Russian troops in the area has fallen to 3,000 from its peak of 10,000, reports that Moscow is to cement its hold on the islands with the deployment of sophisticated military hardware has, in the words of one Japanese official, sent bilateral relations to their “worst point in decades.”

Russia is to deploy cruise missiles capable of striking Hokkaido, an advanced air defense system and attack helicopters, according to reports from the country’s Interfax news agancy. Military officials have said that at least one of four Mistral-class amphibious assault ships Russia is building with France could be deployed in the region as part of a $150 million program to strengthen its Pacific fleet of submarines and surface ships.

The plans come after decades of failed diplomatic attempts to resolve the dispute over Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai rocks — known in Russia as the Southern Kurils.

Kremlin officials insist that the build-up is part of attempts to modernize the country’s military presence in its far eastern region, hereby enabling it to reduce troop numbers.

Japan, though, takes a different view. “Russia's military build-up on the four northern islands is totally incompatible with our country's position," the chief cabinet secretary, Yukio Edano, told reporters. “It is deplorable.”

After decades in which scant attention was paid to the 19,000 or so residents of the Kuril island group, most of whom live on the four disputed islands, what is really behind Russia’s recent moves?

Moscow has compelling strategic reasons for its multimillion-dollar Southern Kurils project, not least because the islands give it the ability to project its power in the Pacific Ocean via the Sea of Okhotsk. The expenditure also sends a clear message to China, whose ballooning military budget is causing disquiet across the region.

Russia’s new focus on its far eastern reaches spells more trouble for Japan, whose priorities lie farther south where it is embroiled in disagreements with China over territory and access to energy sources in the east and south China seas.

That much was clear last week when Japan scrambled F-15 fighter planes to intercept Chinese surveillance and anti-submarine aircraft that had been detected within 30 miles of the Senkakus, a group of islets claimed by both countries.

Moscow’s other motivation is economic. Flush with petro-dollars, Russia finally has the financial wherewithal to invest in its remotest regions.

The Kurils are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and sit on vast mineral resources, as well as an estimated 160 million tons of natural gas and nearly 1,900 tons of gold and other precious metals. Russia has earmarked $615 million in investment for the islands, including an overhaul of their dilapidated infrastructure and, controversially, the launch of joint fisheries ventures with Chinese and South Korean companies.

In making business overtures to China and South Korea, Russia risks angering Japan further. Yet with so much investment at stake and negotiations on the Kurils at a virtual standstill, it appears that rattling Tokyo’s cage is no longer a major factor in Kremlin logic.