Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

"Current Status of Russian Military Modernization in the Northern Territories"
KOIZUMI Yu / Program Assistant Professor, Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, The University of Tokyo

June 24, 2021
In August of 1945, at the end of World War II, Japan and the Soviet Union engaged in a brief but fierce war. The Soviet Red Army invaded and decimated the "Manchukuo", the puppet state founded by Imperial Japan, and proceeded to occupy the previously Japanese territories of the Korean Peninsula, Southern Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands.

Surrendering unconditionally to the Allies, Japan agreed to relinquish its claim to most of these overseas territories. However, Japan claimed sovereignty over the four southernmost islands of the Kurile Islands (Kunashir, Iturup, Habomai and Shikotan) for historical reasons and demanded the return of these islands from the Soviet Union. The territorial dispute of the four islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan, has not been resolved in spite of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And even the vigorous “Russia diplomacy” of the second administration of Shinzo Abe has not led to any noticeable progress towards resolution.

Consequently, the Northern Territories are still effectively under Russian control and Russian troops are stationed there, but there is little data about the actual situation. In this article, we consider the size, composition, and mission of Russian troops stationed in the Northern Territories based on open-source intelligence.

A fairly large-scale complement from the army, navy, and air force were deployed in the Northern Territories during the Cold War. The 18th Machine Gun Artillery Division (18PulAD) was the core of the Soviet army's presence with a total of about 10,000 troops. Additionally, an air force fighter regiment and the navy's surface-to-ship missile (SShM) battery were also deployed on Iturup Island.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the size of Russian military presence in the Northern Territories greatly decreased, with army units withdrawing from Shikotan and the fighter regiment on Iturup Island being disbanded. When the then Defense Minister Rogionov visited Japan in 1995, he stated that the forces in the Northern Territories numbered around 3,500. At the time, the standard of living of the local units deteriorated due to decrepit barracks and food shortage, with a noticeable decline in morale and discipline, which in turn led to drug abuse and recruit hazing and murder.

In the 2010s, the Russian Defense Ministry set out plans to modernize its troops stationed in the Northern Territories, but the emphasis was on renewing aging equipment and military infrastructure, not significantly increasing force size. The new barracks, which were constructed in the Kunashir and Iturup as part of the modernization plan, were designed to accommodate 3,208 personnel (355 officers, 389 conscripts, 1,904 contract military personnel, and 560 others). Considering those numbers, the force size has probably not changed significantly as of the early 2020s.

*Changes and modernization of the force composition*
However, there has been a change in the force structure. The first major change was the deployment of new SShMs in Iturup and Kunashir in 2016. A battery equipped with 3K55 Bastion that can launch P-800 high-speed anti-ship missiles was deployed in Iturup with support facilities newly constructed for them. Though SShM had never been deployed in Kunashir, a battery equipped with 3K60 Bal was deployed in the island around the same time. Bal is widely known for its capability of salvo-launch of Kh-35 Uran anti-ship missiles. The combination of Bastion and Bal SShMs can be seen as substantial increase of Russia’s Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) capabilities around the Northern Territory.

In 2018, three Su-35S fighter jets were deployed at the Yasny Airport on Iturup Island. It had been 25 years since the last fighter jets were deployed in the Northern Territories in 1993. In May 2018, the Russian government declared that it would establish an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over The Kunashir Island, and the deployment of the Su-35S was probably for that purpose. In the same year, two Su-25 ground-attack aircrafts were temporarily deployed at Burevestnik Airfield in central Iturup Island.

Yasny, a civilian airport, does not have the facilities to support a large contingent of fighter jets (ammunition depots, hangars, etc.), and Burevestnik Airbase is old and decrepit. So it is probably difficult to operate many fighter jets in the current Northern Territories. However, the Aerospace Forces (VKS) have indicated that they plan to modernize and renovate the Burevestnik AB by 2023, which could lead to an increase in air power.

In addition, the S-300V4 air defense system was deployed on Iturup Island in 2020. It has a much longer range than the previously deployed Tor and Buk.

Russia is not trying to significantly increase the size of Russian forces stationed in the Northern Territories. However it is modernizing with a focus on increasing its traditionally extremely weak air defense and anti-ship combat capabilities. The Russian government is reported to have approved plans in 2015 to deploy air defense and anti-ship assets in surrounding areas to bolster defenses in the Sea of Okhotsk, which is known as the patrol area of ballistic missile submarines (SSBN). Its primary objective would be to ensure a second-strike capability against the United States in a large-scale war. The force modernization in the Northern Territories can be seen as part of that plan.

However, the opinion stated above is based on a purely military perspective, and we need to take the political implications into account.

After 2016, Russia has repeatedly claimed that if it returned the Northern Territories to Japan, the U.S. might build a military base or deploy a missile defense system there that would undermine Russia's nuclear deterrence. Mr. Yachi, the former Secretary General of National Security Secretariat under the Abe administration, revealed that Russia's attitude has escalated to the point where it finally insists that if Japan wants to conclude a peace treaty and resolve the issue of Northern Territories, the U.S. military deployed in Japan needs to withdraw. Considering these statements, the modernization of the military power in the Northern Territories was implemented not only to meet military needs but also out of diplomatic motives aimed at driving a wedge into the Japan-US alliance.

Yu Koizumi is Program Assistant Professor, Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology,
The University of Tokyo.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

小泉 悠 / 東京大学先端科学技術研究センター特任助教

2021年 6月 24日




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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > "Current Status of Russian Military Modernization in the Northern Territories"