Saturday, April 23, 2016

Despite Bilateral Diplomatic Contacts, Russia Hardens Its View of US as the Enemy

Russian coast guard vessels moored in port at the
Kurile island of Shikotan (Source: Reuters)
First published in the Jamestown Foundation's Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 63, March 31, 2016

By: Pavel Felgenhauer

According to Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the frequency and intensity of high-level contacts between Russia and the United States “are unprecedented.” US Secretary of State John Kerry has regularly visited Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and with President Vladimir Putin. This flurry of diplomatic activity is proof, according to Ryabkov, that Moscow is an indispensable world power, essential to fixing important global problems; and Washington is being forced to recognize this fact. Russia will be doing its best to further impress on the US its own importance and the need to “treat us [Moscow] as an equal power.” But there are problems: “Illegal sanctions imposed by the West are in force” and “anti-Russian rhetoric is deafening in the election-year debates in America.” Russia’s relations with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are frozen: There is no date yet to hold a NATO-Russia Council meeting at the ambassadorial level, because Moscow does not accept NATO’s proposed draft agenda (Izvestia, March 28).

Russia refused to attend the fourth nuclear security summit in Washington this week (March 31–April 1)—the first time a top Russian official has been absent since these summits were initiated by President Barack Obama. The Kremlin and the White House exchanged barbs over “Russian self-isolation” on one side and the “lack of understanding with Washington” on the other. Kerry’s visits and talks did not help dissolve mutual distrust (Kommersant, March 31). The chair of the Duma Foreign Relations Committee, Alexei Pushkov, dismissed US calls for more nuclear disarmament talks and Obama’s demand that Russia fully comply with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Washington accuses Moscow of violating the INF by developing a land-based, long-range, nuclear-capable cruise missile—an accusation the Russian side has adamantly denied. According to Pushkov: “The US must first repair relations with Russia that were destroyed by Obama and only then offer us talks on nuclear weapons” (RIA Novosti, March 31).

The Russian military has recently begun to once again officially use the Cold War phrase “likely enemy” (veroyatniy protivnik) when referring to the US and its allies. Since the collapse of Communism in 1991, the term fell into disuse. But today, Russia and the US are apparently officially enemies again. Last week, speaking at a gathering of top Russian brass in Moscow (the Defense Ministry Collegium), the defense minister, Army-General Sergei Shoigu, announced the deployment of new S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems near Novosibirsk, in the Central Military District. According to Shoigu, new air defense units are being formed, “which will allow, by 2020, to drastically increase the zone of denial of attack by air formations of the likely enemy—we will be able to shoot down cruise missiles flying at low, high and medium altitude” (Mil.ru, March 25).

Shoigu seems to be preparing the Russian military to fight an all-out war with the “likely enemy” on all fronts—on land, sea and air—defending military industrial targets in big cities deep in the Russian hinterland. New threats and military deployments were announced in the East, the Arctic and in the West against NATO, “which is expanding its military potential in Europe, close to Russian borders.” According to Shoigu, “Russia must respond.” New forces are being organized and deployed against NATO in the Western Military District, “including two new army divisions.” Bases are being built and expanded in the Arctic, including on Vrangel Island, located north of Chukotka, in the Arctic Sea (Mil.ru, March 25).

Reinforcements are also being deployed in the Kurile Islands: In 2016, new anti-ship guided missiles “Bal” and “Bastion,” together with new spy drones will be deployed in the South Kurile Kunashir and Iturup islands, also claimed by Japan (see EDM, March 30). Shoigu announced that in April 2016, a special three-month-long naval expedition “by sailors of the Pacific Fleet” will be commenced from the islands of the Greater Kurile Chain (Ridge) to “explore new bases for the Pacific Fleet” (Mil.ru, March 25). According to the chair of the Defense and Security Committee of the Federation Council (upper house of the Russian parliament), Victor Ozerov, “the number of naval ships of the Pacific Fleet that will be deployed in the Kuriles will depend on how constructive relations will be with Japan and other Asia-Pacific nations.” Ozerov called on Japan not to view this future deployment as a threat: “The military-strategic importance [to Russia] of the Kuriles is high; and anyway, not all of the Pacific Fleet will be deployed there” (RIA Novosti, March 25).

It is unclear where the Russian warships are to be stationed in the Kuriles: on Kunashir and Iturup or further north. Today, only Kunashir, Iturup and the most northern Paramushir islands are populated. The Russian military is deployed in the southern Kunashir and Iturup, close to Japan. The rest of the Kurile islands (56 in all) are uninhabited and have no military infrastructure. Since military forces are already deployed in the South Kuriles, there seems no need to send a special naval expedition to seek possible new bases. Possibly the Russian military is planning to militarize the other Kurile islands, as well.

The Russian General Staff considers the Kurile Islands a prime military-strategic asset. The Russian navy has announced it will deploy its newest Borei-class strategic nuclear submarines armed with new Bulava multiple-warhead ballistic missiles to Kamchatka, at the Vilyuchinsk submarine base, where housing and infrastructure have been revamped on orders from the Kremlin. Overall, eight Borei-class subs are planned to be built, and up to five could be based in Kamchatka (TASS, March 4).

At present, the existing Borei-class subs (Yuri Dolgoruky, Vladimir Monomakh and Alexander Nevsky) are undergoing testing in the Barents Sea—close to the Severnaya shipyard, where they were built in Severodvinsk, in the estuary of the Severnaya Dvina, on the White Sea (Izvestia, March 2) When operating in the Pacific, the Borei submarines will go on patrol from Vilyuchinsk into the Russian-controlled, relatively shallow Sea of Okhotsk. From there, they will target the continental United States.

The Sea of Okhotsk is seen as a better safe haven than the northern Barents Sea. The Kurile Island Chain separates the Sea of Okhotsk from the open Pacific Ocean; it is strategically important for the Russian military to build up its naval defenses in the region so as not to allow US and allied anti-submarine assets to penetrate the Okhotsk waters and airspace. As the Borei subs begin arriving in the Pacific, the Kurile Islands could be further militarized—and not only the southern ones facing Japan.

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