Northern areas used
In addition to sending units into combat, Russia has also intensified exercises with its ships.
A Yomiuri Shimbun analysis of SDF statements on Russian ship movements from January to March found that 57 such ships were spotted in waters near Japan, including the Tsugaru Strait, Soya Strait and Tsushima Strait. That number surpassed the total of 54 vessels spotted combined in the same months from 2012 to 2021.
According to officially released documents, the number of ships of the Russian Navy confirmed in these waters in January this year was zero. However, since February 1, Russian ships have been frequently sighted. At least 20 ships have been spotted near the Soy Strait and Tsugaru Strait since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.
Many of these ships appear to have taken part in large-scale exercises in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. “The seas often get rough in the winter months, which can limit exercises like landing and taking off helicopters on ships,” a senior Japan Defense Ministry official told The Yomiuri Shimbun. “Conducting these exercises at this time is aimed at demonstrating their military capabilities.”
Russia has also conducted military exercises in the northern areas. On March 25, the Russian military announced it had started a major exercise involving more than 3,000 troops in the northern areas and in Russia’s own Chishima Archipelago. This appeared to be in retaliation for Japan imposing sanctions on Russia for invading Ukraine. Anti-tank missiles and drones were reportedly used for the exercise.
Russia was apparently conducting a target practice exercise on the evening of March 30. Crew members on a Nemuro Coast Guard Office patrol boat sailing in waters near Nemuro, Hokkaido, saw what appeared to be flares. For about an hour starting at 6:30 p.m., these lights illuminated the sky toward Kunashiri, an island north of the boat’s position. “I’ve never heard of anything like this,” said a Coast Guard official.
Cooperation between Russia and China
In recent years, joint Russian-Chinese activities have also been carried out in areas close to Japan. Whether these actions will continue after the invasion of Ukraine is the focus of considerable attention.
In October, a group of 10 Russian and Chinese ships sailed together through the Tsugaru Strait and the Osumi Strait for the first time. The flotilla sailed in a loop around most of Japan. In November, four Russian and Chinese bombers flew together over the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The Air Self-Defense Force sent jets in response.
Katsutoshi Kawano, a former chief of staff at the Joint Staff Office, said: “China is carefully considering its own position, including the pros and cons of supporting Russia’s blatant act of aggression. Analysis of exercises conducted by Russia and China in the Far East reveals a lot about their relationship. This situation needs to be closely monitored.”
Military rearmament in the Far East
In the closing days of the Cold War, Soviet forces in the Far East included some 390,000 ground troops and 240 surface ships and submarines that faced the Japan-US alliance.
These numbers were reduced after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but cutting-edge equipment has been deployed in the region in recent years as Russia once again ramps up its military might.
According to the Defense Ministry White Paper and other sources, the Eastern Military District of Russia, covering the Far East region, has a ground force force of about 80,000 men. The district’s naval power includes about 20 large surface ships and 13 nuclear-powered submarines. Several nuclear-powered submarines and ballistic missiles operate in the Sea of Okhotsk, and Russia is installing surface-to-ship missiles that could hit approaching enemy ships.
The northern territories jut out into the Sea of Okhotsk, making them extremely important militarily. Russia has deployed about 3,500 men from the 18th Machine Gun and Artillery Divisions, as well as tanks, armored vehicles and artillery on the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu.
By Yohei Kano
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