Moscow has deployed anti-ship missile complexes on the southern Kuril Islands on the eve of a scheduled visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin in December.

Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visits Iturup Island, one of the Kuril Islands. Photo: TASS

On the eve of a scheduled visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia has stationed Bal and Bastion missile complexes (NATO code names Sennight and Stooge) on the disputed Kuril Islands in the Russian Far East, seized from Tokyo at the end of World War II and termed the “Northern Territories” by consecutive Japanese governments.

The deployment of the anti-ship missile units on Nov. 22, just weeks before scheduled talks between Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Yamaguchi Prefecture on December 15, is being seen as detrimental to recent attempts by both sides to clear the stage for some sort of “accommodation” of the ostensibly unresolvable territorial dispute.

One of the arguments possibly used to diffuse tension might be the weapons’ capabilities. But there is one ‘but.’

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The Bal complex, armed with the X-35 anti-ship missile, can hit targets at a range of 120 kilometers (75 miles). The Bastion complex, however, is equipped with supersonic Onyx missiles and can strike not only battleships but also destroy land-based targets within a range of 600 kilometers. This makes it not only a defensive but also an offensive weapon.

In March 2016, the original news of the planned deployment of the anti-ship systems caused one of the readers of Japan Today to comment underneath: “Here is Russia going headlong into a program to stretch its military supply lines way out to their frontiers, far beyond their interests. To defend against a threat that does not exist. And in doing so, they alienate a huge source of patient capital.”

Another comment even went as far as to speculate that the missiles could be used in a future Sino-Russian alliance against Japan: “No doubt they will be put to good use when Russia and China agree to attack Japanese territory, if not Japan itself. Japan is severely outgunned. China is betting they will be left alone by the U.S.”

All in all, both Bal and Bastion have triggered off a tsunami of nervous comments, which may poison, if not the outcome of the coming negotiations, then certainly the atmosphere around them.

The need for subtle diplomacy

There is no point in dramatizing the military upgrade on the Kuril Islands, Ivan Konovalov, head of military policy and economics section at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, claims. Yet it does look like a “show of force,” he adds. “Deployment of the missile complexes has been part and parcel of the on-going reform of the Russian armed forces, launched back in 2008. For too long the Far Eastern regions were neglected in terms of military infrastructure and rearmament. It was long overdue. It mirrors the same military upgrade taking place in the most western part of Russia, the Kaliningrad exclave on the Baltic Sea. I would not exclude the possible deployment of the S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missile system.”

Although the decision on the deployment of Bal and Bastion missile complexes was apparently taken long time ago, today it coincided with preparations for the visit by the Russian president to Tokyo amid probably inflated expectations it might produce some compromise. Isn’t this poor timing for the build-up on the Kurils?

According to Konovalov this move by Russia was planned well-ahead and shows Moscow’s political will and sort of a show of force. Given that the U.S. according to the perspective of the Trump presidency seems to be reluctant to overstretch its commitments to defend Japan, Russia is enhancing its foothold in the region, carrying out its ‘pivot to Asia.’ “Under such circumstances, Tokyo would act pragmatically if it’s looking for compromises on the disputed islands,” explains Konovalov.

Is Moscow playing hardball?

This line of thinking was called into doubt by Fyodor Shelov-Kovedyayev, an academic and former First Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia, who subscribes to the view that it is a mere coincidence. The deployment of Bal and Bastion, announced a long time ago, was exposed to detailed coverage and digestion this spring. It is nothing new. “I do not think that this is a message and Japan is on the receiving end of it. There is more likelihood that it is not the government of Japan but the new U.S. administration under Donald Trump that might interpret this move as unfriendly. I have a feeling that in the end it will not have a negative impact on Putin’s scheduled visit,” argues Shelov-Kovedyayev.

However, proponents of conspiracy theories would stretch their fantasy further by drawing parallels with the undercover tug-of-war between the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Department of Defense, which clashed over partnership with Russia in fighting terrorists in Syria. In an unprecedented display of conflicting views, John Kerry and Ashton Carter traded verbal abuse in September this year.

According to Shelov-Kovedyayev in Russia, the Foreign and Defense Ministries think in sync and work in tune. The relations between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu have nothing in common with the Kerry-Carter sparring.

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Plot thickens around Putin’s visit

The year 2015 was hallmarked by tough talks held by Foregin Minister Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kisida. They culminated in Moscow’s drawing of a red line: The status of the Kuril archipelago is “non-negotiable.” Lavrov reiterated that Japan had to acknowledge the end results of the World War II.

And yet, according to various sources, this “red line” did not derail attempts by both sides to maintain a dialogue.

Nevertheless, the much-anticipated visit by Vladimir Putin to Tokyo, which was expected to take place in the end of 2015, was once again postponed. In a certain way, it prolonged the “no war, no peace” legal limbo that the two nations are stuck in.

Now that Bal and Bastion have been added to the overweight portfolio of bilateral relationship, the intrigue over the substance and style (this matters in Japan) of Putin’s visit to Tokyo has thickened.

Moscow has deployed anti-ship missile complexes on the southern Kuril Islands on the eve of a scheduled visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin in December.

The story is first published at Russia Beyond The Headlines (RBTH)