National / Politics

Russia eyes missile defense buildup on disputed isles near Hokkaido

Kyodo

Moscow is planning to boost its missile defense capabilities, including on disputed isles off Hokkaido, by 2020, an internal Russian government document showed Sunday, in a move likely to hurt the two nations’ efforts to step up talks on concluding a postwar peace treaty.

The plan indicates Russia places strategic importance on the islands in defending the Sea of Okhotsk and its nuclear force stronghold as well as countering the increasing U.S. military presence in the area to address a threat by North Korea.

Japan and Russia are looking to push ahead with peace treaty talks as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in November to accelerate negotiations.

A Russian government source said the document obtained by Kyodo News was drawn up sometime after this summer. It remains unknown whether the plan was approved by Putin. Russian media recently reported on the envisioned military buildup in the area.

By setting up a defense line around the islands in the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia is aiming to keep foreign vessels out of the waters where its nuclear submarines are deployed, while also securing the free navigation of the Russian Pacific Fleet, which is headquartered in Vladivostok.

According to the document, new shore-to-ship missiles systems called the Bastion, with a range of more than 300 kilometers (over 180 miles), and the Bal, with a range of over 130 km (over 80 miles), will be deployed on six islands and on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Missile systems were deployed in 2016 on Etorofu and Kunashiri, two of the four islands and islets off Hokkaido that are claimed by Japan.

The two islands, along with Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, are called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia. The former Soviet Union seized them following Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II in 1945.

Part of Hokkaido and the disputed islands will fall within the range of the missile defense systems.

According to the plan, missiles will not be deployed on Shikotan or the Habomai islets, whose return by the then-Soviet Union was mentioned in a 1956 declaration. Abe and Putin agreed in a meeting in November to advance negotiations on a peace treaty based on the declaration.

A Defense Ministry official in Tokyo said there is little need to deploy missiles on Shikotan and Habomais because other Russian bases in the area can respond to a contingency.

Russia has constructed four barracks for troops on Etorofu and Kunashiri, triggering a protest from Japan earlier this month. Experts say the increasing military importance of the two islands will make their return to Japan even more difficult.

Moscow has also expressed concern over Tokyo’s plan to deploy the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore missile defense system, saying it will be difficult to conclude a peace treaty unless Japan explains its future security policy.