Written by: Vincent Chaput
On December 5th, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Defence (Ministerstvo Oborony Rossii) declared that Russia had deployed mobile coastal defence missile systems – K-300P Bastion Systems – on the northern Kuril Island of Paramushir (Japan Today, Dec 6, 2022). The Russian Bastion missile system is known to be an effective mobile launch platform of the supersonic anti-ship P-800 Oniks (NATO codename SS-N-26 Strobile) that have reportedly been launched in the southern districts of Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion (The Eurasian Times, Dec 5, 2022).
Following the declaration of the Russian Defence Ministry, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary Matsuno remarked that “the Russian military is accelerating its activities in the Far East, including Japan, as it continues its invasion in Ukraine” (Matsuno, Press Conference, Dec 6, 2022). Russia’s military build-up in Eastern Siberia has been intensely pursued in reaction to the 2017 establishment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea amidst fears of a potential nuclear conflict (Seth Robson, 2022). In an increasingly unstable context, Russian missile systems have been subsequently deployed on the island of Paramushir around a year after Russia put Bastion systems on the central Kuril islet of Matua north of Japan’s Hokkaido Prefecture (Ike Barrash, 2022). According to James Brown, an Eastern Asian relations scholar based in Japan, “the purpose of [the defence missile deployment] is to secure Russian control over the Sea of Okhotsk, which is important as a bastion for Russian nuclear submarines” (James Brown, Dec 7, 2022).
The strategic location of the Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk remains one of the most serious points of contention between Russia and Japan since the second half of the nineteenth century. Shortly after the signature of the Kanagawa Convention with the United States in 1854, Tokugawa’s Japan was living through the final hours of the Edo era that had been marked by more than two centuries of diplomatic isolation (sakoku) (Makoto, 1878). Russia then managed to open the gates of the main Japanese ports to Russian vessels in a landmark commercial and navigation treaty that was signed only a year later after the famous cannonade of the US Admiral Perry in the bay of Edo: The Treaty of Shimoda. As border clashes began heightening due to the unaddressed issue of the status of Sakhalin Island, both imperial powers reached a further agreement in 1875 under the Treaty of Saint-Petersburg which ceded the southern part of Sakhalin to Russia in exchange for Japan’s sovereignty over the entire Kuril archipelago stretching from Hokkaido Island to the Kamchatka Peninsula. However, in the aftermath of Russia’s humiliating defeat to Meiji Japan at the battle of Tsushima off the coast of Kyushu Island, the territorial status of the Kuril Islands was put back again on the negotiation table at the Portsmouth Peace Conference of September 1905. The Russo-Japanese War concluded with the temporary return of Sakhalin to the Japanese until the end of the Second World War. It is precisely when imperialist Japan was retreating from the Pacific region in face of the victorious US divisions that Soviet Russia retook possession of both southern Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands. In 1952, the Soviet Union eventually gained full sovereignty rights over the Kuril Islands after signing the San Francisco Peace Treaty with vanquished Japan (Chang, 1993).
However, it is worth noting that, even in the following decades after the Joint Declaration between USSR and Japan in 1956, the case of the southernmost Kuril Islands – namely Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and Habomai – has been left broadly unresolved despite repeated reassurances from the two sides to find a solution (Pessoa, 2020). Although Japan is still continuously claiming that these four islets belong to the Numero Subprefecture of Hokkaido Territories, Russia placed them directly under the jurisdiction of the Sakhalinskaya Oblast (Ibid). The recent progress made during the tenure of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2012-2020) in Russo-Japanese economic relations, which were characterised until then by a faster integration process of the Russian Far Eastern into the Asia-Pacific trade sphere and a constant increase in Japanese oil and gas imports from Siberian oilfields, has nonetheless given far too little certainty over the prospect for a mutually satisfactory settlement of the islands dispute (Ibid, 2-3).
All hopes for promising cooperation between the two nations within the fields of industrial projects, technology, space exploration and energy production disappeared suddenly in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022. Shortly thereafter, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida firmly condemned the ongoing so-called special military operation (spezialnaya voennaya operatzia) led personally by Putin, whilst Foreign Minister Hayashi urgently called Russia to “stop invading Ukraine immediately and withdraw [Russian] troops” (Hayashi, Feb 24, 2022). In a speech in London on May 5, 2022, Kishida highlighted the point that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was “a matter for the whole world, including Asia” (Kishida, Guildhall Speech, May 5, 2022) and announced that “Japan will work together with other nations and take actions with resolute determination so that we would not be sending out the wrong message to the international community; so that using force to unilaterally change the status quo shall never be repeated” (Kishida, Guildhall Speech, May 5, 2022). In early July 2022, the Japanese government imposed a package of sanctions against the Russian Federation and its Belarusian ally, including travel bans on 57 nationals and an export ban on 300 domestic products such as semiconductors and software equipment (TASS, March 21, 2022). Japanese sanctions emerged as a rupture with the conciliatory strategy of Prime Minister Abe whose efforts had been committed towards a constant improvement in relations with Putin (Tsurukoa, 2021). In retaliation to Kishida’s sanctions and other hostile measures, Russia withdrew unilaterally from peace treaty talks with its neighbour and suspended all ongoing and planned economic projects on the disputed Kuril Islands (TASS, March 21, 2022). This decision also signalled Russia’s clear understanding of the significance for Japan to keep cultivating strong military ties with the US as the sole security guarantor of the Asia-Pacific region in face of revisionist China (Kadam, 2022). In brief, Russia’s deployment of Bastion defence missile systems on the island of Paramushir sent the unequivocal message that Russia is neither ready to demilitarize the whole region nor inclined to reverse the course of events on the Ukrainian frontline.
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