Russia’s troop buildup on the disputed Kuril Islands occurs in response to U.S. militarization of the Asia-Pacific region, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on 1 June.
“As for the boosting of our military capabilities in the Russian Far East and the [Kuril] Islands in particular, this is not Russia’s initiative, just as in another part of the world — Europe,” Putin said, according to the Russian state-controlled news site Sputnik News.
In his remarks, Putin in particular expressed his concern over U.S. missile defense systems deployed to the region including the stationing of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea.
“We are always thinking of how to respond [to expansion of U.S. missile defense systems]. We are thinking of improving countermeasures to the missile defense systems (…)” Putin stated. “The same situation exists with the [Kuril] islands, we are thinking of how to curtail threats to security on our distant borders. From this perspective, the islands are very convenient.”
In addition, the Russian president thinks that there will be a U.S. military presence on the Kuril Islands, should Japan regain control of the disputed territories — the first time Putin has expressed public concern over the stationing of U.S. soldiers there.
“Concerning the theoretical possibility of the U.S. troop deployment on these [Kuril] islands if we assume that they would someday come under the sovereignty of Japan. Well, yes, this possibility exists,” Putin said.
“It follows from an agreement and… signed protocols… They don’t show them to us, but we generally know their content… There is a possibility of U.S. troop deployment on these territories,” he added.
Japanese policymakers have expressed concern over the Russian president’s remarks. Russia and Japan have only recently agreed to work on joint commercial projects on the southern Kuril Islands beginning in 2018.
The Kuril Islands — known in Japan as the Northern Territories — consist of the islands of Shikotan, Kunashiri, and Etorofu, as well as the tiny Habomai islets and are located in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Northwest Pacific.
As I reported elsewhere, Russia announced in March that it will deploy a division to the islands in 2017, although it is unclear whether this will be an entirely new unit or reinforcements for the 18th Machine Gun Artillery Division tasked with the defense of the islands. The division is currently being upgraded with new military hardware including advanced air defense systems and anti-ship missiles including the Bal-E and K-300 missile systems.
“The Bal-E modern coastal missile system fires the subsonic H-35 anti-ship missile with – depending on the variant – an operational range of about 130 to 300 kilometers (80-186 miles). K-300 Bastion-P standard batteries fire the over-the-horizon supersonic P-800 Oniks anti-ship missile with an approximate maximum range of 600 kilometers (372 miles),” I explained.
There also have been reports that Russia will expand its naval presence on the Kurils and perhaps form an entire new army corps for the defense of the disputed territories.