Russian military opposes transfer of Southern Kurils to Japan - experts

The U.S. could set up military bases on the Southern Kurils if the islands are ceded to Japan. Besides security concerns, Russian military experts cite other important reasons for Moscow to not make any compromises with Tokyo on the territorial dispute.
Type 97 Chi-Ha Kurils
A Japanese Type 97 Chi-Ha tank that was destroyed during the Battle of Shumshu in the Kuril Islands in 1945. Source: Phil DeFer (Flickr.com)

On the eve of Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan Japanese media outlets reported that Tokyo does not rule out the deployment of U.S. military bases on the Southern Kurils if the islands are transferred to Japan. 

Citing unnamed sources, The Asahi Shimbun on Dec. 14 reported that the Secretary-General of the National Security Council of Japan informed the Russian side about such a scenario when he held talks in Moscow with Nikolay Patrushev, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia.

The placement of U.S. military bases on the Southern Kuril Islands would pose a real threat to Russia's defense capability, according to Russian military experts. 

Even if the Russian side were to obtain guarantees from Tokyo to exclude this possibility, the loss of some of the Kuril Islands is against Russia’s best interests, the experts added. 

Moscow's official position is that Russia will not cede any territory to Japan. This has been repeatedly stated by President Vladimir Putin.

Gateway to the Pacific

Because of its unique location, the Kuril Islands give Russia the possibility to fully control the sea passage to the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk, Ivan Konovalov, chief of military policy and economy department of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies told RBTH.

Since Russian strategic nuclear submarines are based in Kamchatka, the transfer of some islands of the Kuril chain would not affect the submarines' access to the Pacific Ocean, Dmitry Safonov, a military observer of the Izvestia newspaper said.  

However, a potential transfer of the islands could create problems for military ships based in Vladivostok. “In the worst case, Japan could prohibit the passage of warships through these straits,” Maxim Starchak, research fellow at Centre for International and Defense policy at Queen's University, Ontario, Canada, told RBTH.

“This will require serious change of navigation and new infrastructure investment. Of course, the Russian military wants to avoid it.”

According to Starchak, if the islands were transferred to Japan the Russian Defense Ministry would have to deal with new obligations concerning the rules of passage of vessels through numerous straits.

“[Even] the closure of the straits would not cut Russia off the ocean completely, but the change of regulations would be too complex and financially burdensome,” Starchak added.

Military infrastructure

One of the main problems that the potential transfer of the islands would cause is the extreme proximity of Russian and Japanese military infrastructure.

“The distance between the islands is calculated in kilometers. That is, if islands are transferred, and Japan gets some military infrastructure there, the parties will be able to shoot at close range,” Starchak said.

Russia began to develop military infrastructure in the Kuril Islands only in 2000s. Now there is a military contingent of a few thousand people on the islands.

In November 2016, Russia deployed the Bastion and Ball coastal missile complexes on the islands of Kunashir and Iturup. Experts regarded this gesture as a reaffirmation from Moscow that it does not intend to give the islands back to Japan.

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