Streetwise Professor

March 3, 2011

The Curious Case of the Kuriles

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 10:42 am

When two historically antagonistic nations are jointly threatened by the rise of a third, aggressive one, the conventional response is for the two to find a way to resolve their disputes and join together against the new rival.

The example that immediately comes to mind is France and Britain in the face of a rising, obstreperous Germany in the early-20th century.  France and Britain/England had been adversaries for centuries.  Starting with the Hundred Years War (or 1066, if you prefer), the two nations were at war for a good part of the succeeding years, culminating in 1815.  During this time, these countries fought some of the first truly world wars, the Seven Years War, the Wars of Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars.  Although the 19th century was relatively quiescent, the countries still viewed each other as their most likely enemies.  As late as the Fashoda Incident of 1898, war between the two countries was a real possibility.

But the rise of Wilhelmine Germany threatened both countries.  So, in 1904 the countries put aside their centuries of hostility and began to cooperate in defense planning.  Soon the countries entered into a formal alliance.

For a second example, Communist China and the US were enemies from 1948 on.  The two countries fought to a bloody stalemate in Korea, 1950-1953.  But they put aside their differences to cooperate against the USSR, starting with Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.

This article argues that Russia and Japan fear a rising China.  That makes sense.  What would also make sense is for Japan and Russia to find ways to reach an accommodation over issues that divide them.  The most notable of these divisive issues is the Kuriles.  But instead of toning down the confrontation, Russia in particular is ramping things up with the Japanese.  It has greatly elevated the rhetoric over the islands, and heightened the profile of the dispute with high level visits to the islands by Medvedev and Defense Minister Serdyukov.  It has just announced plans to greatly increase the armaments on the islands, including S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems adn Bastion mobile coastal missile system with Yakhont supersonic anti-ship missiles. The Japanese have responded with some animosity, and there have been outbreaks of popular anti-Russian protest in Japan (including a tragicomic flag burning incident).

If Russia is truly concerned about China, this course is insane.  The wiser course would be to explore a rapprochement with Japan involving some sort of deal on the Kuriles and cooperation on other economic and defense matters (e.g., North Korea). If Russia truly fears China, picking a fight with Japan is not just pointless, it is counterproductive.  Putting aside long term distrust and disagreements would not be easy, but worth the effort: instead, the distrust and disagreements are being aggravated.

Another explanation that has been advanced to explain Russia’s sudden interest in the Kuriles is that it is really motivated by a fear of the US, particularly the fear that Russian ballistic missile submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk are vulnerable to US attack.  The Kuriles are a barrier to the Sea, and placing a strong defense there would protect the Russian boomers lurking behind them.

This is also insane.  In terms of prioritizing threats, especially to the Russian east, Russia should rank China higher.  Again, a more reasonable geopolitical strategy would be to find common ground with the US in dealing with a more powerful and assertive China.  But that would require the Russian political and military leadership to banish the American bugbear from their minds.  Given the complex that afflicts virtually the entirety of said leadership, that’s not going to happen.

What explains this insanity?  I’m open to suggestions.  Some possibilities include:  This is just a consequence of political rivalry inside Russia in the lead up to the election, with Medvedev trying to establish a reputation as a guardian of Russian interests.  Or, it is just a reflection of deep insecurity combined with a sense that Russia does not have the means to address the main problem–rising Chinese power.  Or that Russia is trying to send a signal to China by getting into a spat with the Japanese.

The explanation is unlikely to be straightforward, because Russia is not taking the more conventional, straightforward course in this matter.  If China is indeed its main anxiety, especially in Asia, it would be hard to come up with a worse way of addressing it.

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  1. Ivan wrote: “rkka, you are right again: I omitted something important when writing “no amount of red herring and ad hominem will be spared by your brethren to distract from it.” So I am correcting myself: no amount of blatant lies, red herring and ad hominem will be spared by your brethren to distract from it.

    Speaking of “ad hominem”, Ivan, have you noticed that most of your posts – like this one – have nothing else except sophomoric ad hominem attacks?

    Comment by Ostap Bender — March 10, 2011 @ 1:44 am

  2. Ostap Bender,

    welcome to rkka’s club: blatant lie+ad hominem, yawn. And I bet you’ve never heard about Putin’s billion-dollar palace either.

    Comment by Ivan — March 10, 2011 @ 2:46 am

  3. @Ivan

    Well, I have heard unconfirmed rumors about Putin’s billion-dollar palace and even seen alleged pictures. What I do know as confirmed is the $10 billion that Cheney and his Halliburton stole from the US taxpayers by invading Iraq:

    In the run-up to the Iraq war, Halliburton was awarded a $7 billion contract for which ‘unusually’ only Halliburton was allowed to bid.[43]

    DECEMBER 9, 2004

    Fact Sheet

    Halliburton’s Iraq Contracts Now Worth over $10 Billion

    The value of Halliburton’s Iraq contracts has crossed the $10 billion threshold. Halliburton has now received $8.3 billion in Iraq work under its LOGCAP troop support contract and $2.5 billion under its no-bid Restore Iraqi Oil (RIO) contract, a total of $10.8 billion.

    Comment by Ostap Bender — March 14, 2011 @ 3:54 am

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