MOSCOW – Russia is constructing hundreds of military buildings on two of the four disputed islands off Hokkaido, defense minister Sergei Shoigu has said, potentially sharpening tensions with Japan.
The government construction agency is now “actively building military towns” on the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri — known as Iturup and Kunashir in Russia — Shoigu told a meeting of military top brass, according to a ministry statement Tuesday.
Relations between Moscow and Tokyo have been strained for decades over the southernmost islands in the Kuril chain, known as the Northern Territories in Japan, which the Soviet Union seized following Japan’s surrender in World War II.
Some 19,000 Russians live on the remote, rocky islands.
The ministry said the new military buildings would help “raise the combat readiness of troops on the eastern frontiers of Russia.”
Altogether, Russia plans to put up 392 prefabricated buildings and other constructions on the islands, including schools, kindergartens, leisure centers and dormitories.
The statement said construction work currently underway would continue through the winter. It said the buildings would be the latest kind of rapid assembly units.
“This year, the priority is finishing the most essential buildings and the engineering infrastructure” to receive troops and equipment, Shoigu said. The statement did not declare the longer-term purpose.
In September, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited the island of Iturup and surveyed troops there, a move that angered Japan. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in September ruled out any compromise on the islands, telling Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida in September that Tokyo must acknowledge “the postwar historical realities, urging Tokyo to accept historical realities.”
Russia has recently poured in investments to the region and rebuilt the airport on Kunashiri, which was originally Japanese-built. The two countries have never struck a peace treaty and lingering tensions remain.