LONDON – The Russian Air Force last week took joint control of a newly operational airport in the disputed Northern Territories, in a sign that Moscow is digging in over the islands.
On Tuesday the Russian government assigned a dual civilian-military role to Iturup Airport on the island of Etorofu, clearing the way for the deployment of warplanes, drones and command systems at the facility. The airport’s 2.3-kilometer-long runway could handle such giant aircraft as the Boeing 747 or Russia’s largest cargo planes carrying midweight loads.
Japan’s top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, expressed concern Friday over the move.
“We’ve said through diplomatic channels that it goes against our country’s position,” Suga said at a news conference in Tokyo. “We’re gathering information on the Russian military’s behavior in the Northern Territories.”
The move appears to fit a pattern of Moscow’s militarization of the isles and of the broader Kuril chain. A series of recent developments have presented new headaches and humiliations for Japan as it seeks to regain control of the lost land.
In 2016, anti-ship missile batteries were deployed on the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri, a Russian naval newspaper reported. In May 2017, Russia’s eastern military command announced an armament upgrade for an artillery division on the southern Kurils, including drones.
And in October 2017 a senior member of a Russian Upper House defense committee was quoted saying plans are underway to build a naval port in the Kurils for large warships such as cruisers and nuclear submarines. The Russian Ministry of Defense has pointed to the remote volcanic island of Matua as a possible location for such a base.
Etorofu, known in Russia as Iturup, is one of four isles that Moscow seized in the closing days of World War II. It is the largest island in the group.
Until now Russia’s air force has operated on Etorofu from a decrepit Soviet-era airport. The old facility, Burevestnik Airport, is reported to be barely usable not least because of persistent fog.
The new airport opened in 2014. It handles civilian flights to and from Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin island.
The Slavic place names belie the fact that Russia has dominated the region only since the war. Japan administered Sakhalin throughout much of the 19th century, relinquishing the southern half of the island in 1945 when invading Soviet forces ousted residents and seized control. Today survivors of the exodus recount losing relatives and livelihoods in the move south.
Why the two nations still have not signed a peace treaty depends on which language is being spoken. Moscow accuses Tokyo of ignoring postwar realities, and the Japanese point to Russian intransigence.
Despite occasional agreements to bring Japanese investment to Russia’s spartan far east, a peace deal has proven elusive. President Vladimir Putin suggested he is in no hurry when in November he demanded that Japan review its ties with the U.S. as a condition for a peace treaty. The comment came as Putin met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Vietnam.
“Far from drawing closer together, Russia and Japan are growing further apart,” analyst Jonathan Eyal of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute wrote in November. “Surreptitiously, Putin has piled additional pressure on Tokyo by raising the question of Japan’s alliance with the U.S.”
Eyal said one explanation for Putin’s move is that the Russian leader simply does not want a peace treaty, because it would have to address the territorial issue. If so, he wrote, Putin is “inventing excuses” to kick the talks into long grass.
For its part, Moscow appears to assume that Japan needs Russia more than vice versa. In Moscow, the Kremlin-backed Katehon think tank argues Russia should milk Japan for economic gains while holding the islands out of reach. In a report last April, Katehon said Japanese cash would provide development that Moscow cannot afford.
However, the think tank warned that Tokyo will be unable to buy back the islands. Any nation that thinks the Kremlin will be a push-over should look at the situation in eastern Ukraine, it said.
Meanwhile, questions remain over logistics and funding for Russia’s mooted naval base in the Kurils. While Moscow has not revealed its favored location, the small island of Matua has received attention.
Matua is far from ideal. It can be reached only by sea, a volcano erupted on it in 2009, and there is no infrastructure other than dilapidated covered trenches built by the Imperial Japanese military.
It does, however, offer interest to the historian. Last summer, a survey expedition from the Ministry of Defense and the Russian Geographical Society reported several World War II-era discoveries at Matua, including a sunken warship that they identified as the Augsburg, a German cruiser handed to Japan as war booty in 1920. The Augsburg was previously thought to have been broken up for scrap — in Germany.
Information from Kyodo added