Russia started military exercises in the remote far east of the country, prompting protests from neighboring Japan at a time when its troops are also active in eastern Europe and on the Ukrainian border.
The drills in the Kuril islands started yesterday with more than 1,000 troops, five helicopters and about 100 pieces of equipment, state-run new service RIA Novosti reported, citing Alexander Gordeyev, a regional spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry. Japan, which also claims the islands as its Northern Territories, called the drills “absolutely unacceptable,” according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry.
The dispute risks worsening Russia’s relations with another trading partner and are the latest setback for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to resolve the island dispute. Trade between the two countries, which haven’t signed a peace treaty after World War II, rose more than sixfold in a decade to $37 billion last year, propelling Japan to sixth place among Russia’s partners from 12th in 2003, according to International Monetary Fund data.
The government in Moscow, angered by Japan’s support for sanctions over the unrest in Ukraine, less than two weeks ago canceled talks between the two countries’ deputy foreign ministers. The war games will practice “elements of defending the coastline” and feature a deployment of airborne troops, Gordeyev said, according to RIA.
With the start of the maneuvers on the Pacific, Russia has military exercises under way that span the world’s biggest country by area. The nation of 143 million people with a $2 trillion economy this decade has embarked on its biggest overhaul of the armed forces since the Cold War.
Two days ago, the Itar-Tass news service reported that week-long drills involving about 3,000 paratroopers, warplanes and helicopters began in the Pskov region of western Russia, which borders Belarus as well as Estonia and Latvia, both members of the European Union and NATO.
The U.S. and its allies have accused Russia of using military exercises during the recent standoff with Ukraine to keep pressure on its western neighbor.
The government in Kiev estimates Russia has deployed 45,000 soldiers, 160 tanks and 192 warplanes among other equipment along its border, including soldiers stationed in Crimea. That makes it the biggest military buildup since troops were withdrawn from the area in May.
War drills that tested the country’s air force and and air defense ended on Aug. 8 at the Ashuluk firing range in the Astrakhan region, with troops returning to areas of their permanent deployment, Interfax reported, citing Russia’s Defense Ministry.
Abe had been pushing for closer ties with Russia to resolve the Cold War-era territorial differences and expand the supply of Russian energy to Japan. He is the first Japanese leader in a decade to make an official visit to Russia, and has met President Vladimir Putin five times, including a trip to the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony that was shunned by U.S. President Barack Obama. Abe’s efforts hit a snag when Japan joined his Group of Seven counterparts to back sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea and policy toward Ukraine.
The area at the center of the disagreement with Russia consists of four islands near Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, taken over by the Soviet Union at the end of the war. As hostilities ceased in the Pacific in 1945, the Soviets renounced a neutrality treaty they had signed with Japan in 1941 and in August declared war.
By early September, the Soviet Union took control of the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai and deported thousands of Japanese residents during the next few years, according to Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Differences over the islands proved the stumbling block to Japan and the Soviet Union signing a permanent peace treaty after negotiations in 1956. The two sides signed a joint declaration reestablishing diplomatic relations and agreed to continue talks on the islands.