The Japanese Air Self-Defence Force (ASDF) was placed on high alert and scrambled jets after two Russian long-range Tu-95 strategic bombers (comparable to American B-52s) flew the length of the Ryukyu Island chain on Sunday. According to Ria Novosti, the bombers did not violate Japanese airspace.
The Moscow Times, citing Japanese defense officials, further added that the two Tu-95s "flew northward along a group of islands near Okinawa Island in the direction Hokkaido.” The jets headed north toward Sakhalin Island. It further reported that the ASDF scrambled jets to respond to a Tu-142 long-range maritime reconnaissance anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft which also flew close to Japanese airspace.
The Japanese reaction to this sort of Russian activity has been observed for a while now. The ASDF has scrambled jets 105 times between July to September 2013 due to close-proximity Russian fly-bys.
Although the fly-by did not violate Japanese airspace during this particular incident, Russian jets have been known to do so in the past. Su-27 jets allegedly entered Japanese airspace earlier this year, marking the first time since 2008 that Russian jets entered Japanese airspace. A similar incident involving a pair of Tu-95 strategic bombers occurred in August of this year. Japan’s Defense Ministry is conducting an analysis into Russia’s intentions with these fly-bys.
The fly-by incidents cast a shadow over warming relations between Russia and Japan, who held a 2+2 joint consultation between their foreign and defense ministers. The talks, widely seen as successful, resulted in a commitment to comprehensively deepen ties in security matters. The two committed to develop their bilateral cooperation on maritime and cyber-security matters. Russia and Japan have also discussed the possibility of conducting joint military exercises.
Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told a press conference after the 2+2 meeting: "To boost cooperation in the field of security, and not just in the field of economic and people exchanges, means that we are improving overall Japan-Russia ties."
Earlier this year, in September, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin came to an understanding that the nearly 70-year old territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands should be resolved via a draw. According to Putin’s spokesman “Both sides expressed an understanding that the solution to the problem of the peace agreement can only be based on the principle that there are no victors or losers.”
Do these fly-bys relate directly to the Kuril Islands dispute? Probably not. Russian and Japanese relations are at all-time highs, and the fact that a very specific rapprochement has occurred between Putin and Abe should indicate that Russia is unlikely to take any military steps to resolve the dispute.
Alexander Golts, a military expert on Russia with Yezhednevny Zhurnal, agrees with that assessment saying that "There is absolutely no reason for anyone to want to make some sort of military demonstration to Japan at this point. They've been holding talks, and quite successful ones, about enhancing mutual security.” Golts adds that the most likely explanation is perhaps that it is a coincidence – a case of "The left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.”
The latter explanation is largely unsatisfactory. Vladimir Putin’s handling of security affairs is hardly known to be ad hoc and coincidental.
The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly issued statements after these fly-bys stating that it conducts them under the principles of international law, without violating the airspace of other states.
An often-underdiscussed point in analyses of the increasing Russian fly-bys this year is growing Russian unease over burgeoning U.S. missile defense systems in Japan. Reflecting on the 2+2 meeting earlier this month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said “We made no secret of the fact that the creation by the U.S. of a global missile defense system, including a Japanese element, is causing us grave concern, primarily over the possible destruction of the strategic balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Moscow is expected to approach Tokyo more directly about the issue in future high-level talks. Japanese FM Kishida was remarkably clear about Japan’s commitment to its alliance with the United States. According to RT, he responded to Russian concerns by stating that “there will be no changes” with regard to its U.S. alliance. The fly-bys might communicate to Tokyo the true extent of Moscow’s concerns.