Russian Federation’s militarisation of the Northwest Asia-Pacific

The Russian military honour guard (Credits: MC1 Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 18 Issue 1
Author: Riccardo Rossi

In the political-strategic vision of the Russian Federation, the Northwest Asia-Pacific region represents a geo-maritime space of high strategic value for the defence of its national interests.

With the increasing geopolitical competition between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United States, Moscow has progressively increased attention in the northwestern Asia-Pacific area.

Given these assessments, the objective of the analysis is to understand which areas of the Northwest Asia-Pacific the Russian Federation considers to be of high geostrategic value and then to evaluate the tactical employment of the Eastern Military District (EMD) defend its interests in these areas.[1]

The strategic role of the Eastern Military District

Over the past decade, the United States has developed a specific Asia-Pacific foreign policy program called Pivot to Asia, containing the political-military rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) within the First Island Chain.[2]

The Russian Federation has judged the U.S. political-strategic vision as a threat to the regional geopolitical stability, especially for the northwestern region where Moscow attributes high importance to some geo-maritime sectors included in the semi-closed seas of Japan and Okhotsk.

Within the Sea of Japan, the Kremlin identifies two strategically central areas:

  1. The Russian southern foreshore segment, including the city of Vladivostok, headquarters of the Pacific Fleet and close to the borderline with North Korea;
  2. The straits of Korea and La Pérouse. Of these two straits, the Korean one interconnects the Sea of Japan with the nearby East China Sea, while the La Pérouse channel connects the Sea of Japan with the Okhotsk maritime area.

In the case of the Sea of Okhotsk, the Kremlin focuses its tactical attention on the island territory of Sakhalin, the Kurile archipelago (partly claimed by Japan) and the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, located on the southern side of the Kamchatka peninsula. [3]

For Russia, these territories, respectively part of the semi-closed seas of Japan and Okhotsk, constitute a tool of influence in the adoption in agreement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of a political-strategic program for the Northwest Asia-Pacific region aimed at:

  1. maintaining geopolitical stability in the Korean peninsula to preserve the function of a buffer state carried out by North Korea, separating the Sino-Russian territories from the Republic of Korea and the U.S. bases located near Seoul. [4]
  2. supervising Japanese-U.S. military air-sea manoeuvres conducted near Korea and La Pérouse narrows, as obligatory passages of the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) that interconnect the semi-closed seas of Japan and Okhotsk and the Russian port of Vladivostok with the most important maritime trade routes of the Asia-Pacific, including the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which connects the Asian market with the European one. [5]

From this common Sino-Russian sharing of the political-strategic priorities, the Russian Federation drafted a tactical-military doctrine for the Northwest Asia-Pacific region, envisioning strengthening the Eastern Military District (EMD).

This EMD enhancement operation unfolds by focusing attention on the strategic bases of Ukrainka and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.[6] The former is home to the TU-95 and TU-160 Blackjack long-range nuclear bombers capable of carrying various weapons, including the AS-15 Kent nuclear cruise missile. [7] Considering the several squadrons of Tu-95 and Tu-160 at the Ukrainka base, the Eastern Military District had to establish a missile defence network using S-300, S-400 and the Short-range ballistic missile SS-26.

The second strategic outpost available to Moscow in the northwestern Asia-Pacific region is near the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy. Since the beginning of the 1970s, it has been the seat of the Soviet Union’s submarine nuclear deterrent and, since 1991, has been under the Russian Federation’s control.

Historically, the reasons that pushed the USSR and later the Russian Federation in considering Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy a strategic area suitable to host the nuclear submarine flotilla rely on its geographic location on the southeastern side of Kamchatka and its adjacency to the Pacific Ocean, providing submarines access to its water,[8] and its geophysical conformation of the peninsula between the semi-enclosed sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean and its proximity to both the archipelago of the Kurils, located in the centre between the Japanese territory and Kamchatka and the island of Sakhalin, adjacent to the maritime strait of La Pérouse.

This tactical location of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy in Kamchatka, combined with its characteristic conformation, led the USSR to deploy Delta I and Delta III class nuclear submarines near this population centre. The Russian Federation, over the last decade, has placed flotillas of nuclear attack submarines (SSN), guided-missile launchers (SSGN) and ballistic missile launchers (SSBN), including the Borei class capable of carrying 16 R-30 Bulava SLBMs.[9]

The placement of the nuclear submarine arsenal in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy required the Kremlin, through the Eastern Military District, to implement a program of militarisation of the Kuril Archipelago and the island of Sakhalin while recognising the tactical-military importance of the Vladivostok base.[10]

In the case of the Kurils, the EMD concentrated its military resources in the southern islands of Kunašir and Etorofu, distinguished by their respective proximity to the Strait of La Pérouse and the Nipponese Prefecture of Hokkaidō.

The Eastern Military District has reinforced the 46th and 48th Machine Gun-Artillery Regiment in both insular territories by deploying an articulated air-naval defence apparatus. This apparatus includes radar systems, the use of fighter aircraft (Su-35, Su-34 fighter-bomber), heavy helicopters (Mi-8) and missile batteries of different types such as S-300, S-400, and Short-range ballistic missile (SRBM), SSC-5 Bastion and SSC-6 Bal.[11]

In addition to the militarisation of Kunašir and Etorofu, the EMD increased military resources in the air force bases located on the southern side of Sakhalin Island to supervise the Strait of La Pérouse and simultaneously support air-naval patrol operations launched from the Kurils. [12]

On the whole, the Russian militarisation program aims to impose in the medium term its sea control in the geo-maritime space between the narrowing of La Pérouse and the southern side of the Kuril archipelago, protect the nuclear submarine base of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy from possible U.S. military operations of power projection, and maintain control on the strait of La Pérouse since it is an obligatory checkpoint of the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) that interconnect the semi-closed seas of Japan and Okhotsk.[13]

In the case of the Vladivostok base, the Eastern Military District adopted a program for the modernisation of surface ships and, at the same time, assigned it the task of supervising the geo-maritime space near the Strait of Korea and coordinating the air-naval training manoeuvres in which the Pacific Fleet takes part.[14]

 Conclusions

According to the facts examined in this analysis, it is possible to affirm that the Russian militarisation process in the Northwest Asia-Pacific region is concentrated in some regions of the semi-closed Japanese and Okhotsk seas.

Moscow attaches a high geopolitical value to two geo-maritime spaces within the Sea of Japan. The first one includes the southern segment of its Asian coastline, especially the city of Vladivostok, the headquarters of the Russian Pacific Fleet and close to the borderline with North Korea. The second territory of interest from the Russian Federation includes the straits of Korea, La Pérouse and the Tartars, obligatory passages of the economic and military Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) that interconnect this maritime space with the East China Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk.

Recognising the strategic importance of these two geo-maritime sectors of the Sea of Japan, the Kremlin has paid particular attention to the nuclear bomber base in Ukrainka, home of the Tu-95 and Tu-160 Blackjack aircraft, and to the military outpost of Vladivostok, assigning it the task of coordinating the activities of the Pacific Fleet and supervising the geo-maritime space near the Korean Peninsula including its strait.

In the case of the Sea of Okhotsk, Moscow focuses its political-military attention on the port city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, the Kuril archipelago and the Sakhalin island territory. In recent years, the Kremlin, through the Eastern Military District, has adopted a complex process of militarisation in the southern part of the Kuril archipelago involving the islands Kunašir, Etorofu and the island territory of Sakhalin, deploying air assets (Su-35 and Su-34 fighter-bomber) and missile platforms (S-300, S-400).

On the whole, this militarisation process adopted by the Russian Federation in the Northwest Asia-Pacific region assigns the EMD a central role in organising and rationalising the military efforts towards four areas considered by Moscow of high economic and strategic value, such as Korea and its straits, the La Pérouse Narrows, the Kuril Archipelago and the southern sector of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

In conclusion, it is possible to hypothesise that for the Putin presidency, the Asia-Pacific North-West area is not a strategically homogeneous space but a differentiated one since it focuses the attention of the Eastern Military District on the geo-maritime areas considered above.

Source

[1] Japan Ministry of Defense, Development of Russian Armed Forces in the Vicinity of Japan, September 2021, https://www.mod.go.jp/en/d_act/sec_env/pdf/ru_d-act_e_210906.pdf

[2] Amighini. A, China Dream: Still Coming True?, Edizioni Epoké – ISPI, Novi Ligure, 2016.

[3] Hara. K, Ikegami. M, New Initiatives for Solving the Northern Territories Issue between Japan and Russia: An Inspiration from the Åland Islands, Issues & Insights Vol. 7- No. 4, April 2007

[4] Rumer. E, Sokolsky. R, Vladicic. A, Russia in the Asia-Pacific: Less Than Meets the Eye, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2020

[5] Ibid

[6] Japan Ministry of Defense, Development of Russian Armed Forces in the Vicinity of Japan, 09/2021, https://www.mod.go.jp/en/d_act/sec_env/pdf/ru_d-act_e_210906.pdf

[7]Kristensen. H, Korda. M, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 2021, VOL. 77, NO. 2, 90-108, https://doi.org/10.1080/00963402.2021.1885869, p99

[8] Hara. K, Ikegami. M, New Initiatives for Solving the Northern Territories Issue between Japan and Russia: An Inspiration from the Åland Islands, Issues & Insights Vol. 7- No. 4, April 2007

[9] Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia Military Power. Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations, 2017 https://www.dia.mil/Military-Power-Publications/

[10] Japan Ministry of Defense, Development of Russian Armed Forces in the Vicinity of Japan, 09/2021, https://www.mod.go.jp/en/d_act/sec_env/pdf/ru_d-act_e_210906.pdf

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] Rumer. E, Sokolsky. R, Vladicic. A, Russia in the Asia-Pacific: Less Than Meets the Eye, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, 2020.

[14] Ibid