The Russian government stated, on February 1, that units of the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) are to be located on Iturup Island (southern end of the Kurile Islands chain, disputed with Japan). This deployment should be seen as a first step in a strategy aimed at militarily fortifying the Russian Far East. Additionally, K-300P Bastion-P (SS-C-5 Stooge) and BAL mobile coastal defense missile systems are expected to be positioned on the Paramushir, Matua and Kunashir islands (the third of which is, again, disputed with Japan) (RIA Novosti, February 1). These steps seem to fit the program presented by the Russian top brass in the second half of December (expected to be implemented before the end of 2018) aimed at reinforcing parts of the Eastern Military District (EMD). Among other aspects, the emphasis will be made on the development of naval aviation and missile-defense divisions, which are to comprise a new single army-sized unit, with its headquarters on the Kamchatka Peninsula (Novosti-dny.ru, December 18, 2017).
The main task of the new formation—the establishment of effective military control over Kamchatka, Chukotka, the Kurile Islands, the Japanese Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk—is to be secured by boosting the counter-offensive capabilities of Russia’s Pacific Fleet. According to the available information, the “center” of this project is the town of Yelizovo (located close to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky). Currently, it hosts part of the 53rd Air-Defense Division. This unit is equipped with S-400 Triumf (SA-21 Growler) air-defense weapons systems, a number of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV—since 2016, including the Orlan-10), 30 MiG-31 supersonic interceptor aircraft, Ka-27 anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopters, and a squadron of Il-38 maritime patrol and ASW aircraft (Izvestia, December 18, 2017).
Commenting on these developments, the editor-in-chief of the Russian military magazine Arsenal Otechestva, Colonel (ret.) Viktor Murakhovsky, noted that this reform serves the purpose of improving Russia’s command-and-control (C2) capabilities over locally stationed armed forces. He also suggested that given Russia’s size and the distinctive features of the Far Eastern region (both geostrategic and in terms of the visible depopulation—see EDM, January 25, 2018), “it would be inconvenient to have merely one army for the entire EMD.” The expert also underscored the fact that, since “Kamchatka is a somewhat isolated territory,” it requires an individual approach (RIA Novosti, December 18, 2017). In turn, Yuri Shvytkin, a member of the Russian Duma’s (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) Defense Committee, claimed that the decision to launch the military buildup in the Far East has been influenced “by a number of factors, such as the political situation, the military policies of other countries, as well as arising from external threats and challenges leveled against Russia that will have to be warded off in case of external aggression” (Vpk.name, December 19, 2017).
Indeed, within the past several months, the Russian side has repeatedly complained about the presence of the United States in the region. Russia’s main concerns are related to the US military bases (especially, the Air Force component) located in Alaska along with the significant potential (including six aircraft carriers) of the US Pacific Fleet (RIA Novosti, December 18, 2017). Another area of concern for Moscow has been the increasing number of military exercises held by US, South Korean and the Japanese naval forces, which is “aggravated” by the growing US military presence in the Pacific region (for instance, the expanding US military potential in South Korea—see EDM, July 22, 2016).
And yet, Russia denies (which frequently occurs in other theaters as well) any attempts to embark on the militarization of the Far East. According to prominent Russian military expert Mikhail Khodarenok, “We are not starting any sort of arms race in the Far East, we are not pursuing saber rattling or preaching war […] we are merely trying to take back what used to be ours.” He further stated that the creation of the new army unit in the Far East and the buildup in local military capabilities is nothing but a “return to common sense” and “the patching up of the old ramshackle hedge—not the creation of a new wall” (RIA Novosti, December 19, 2017).
General enthusiasm regarding the military buildup along Russia’s Pacific coast is not fully shared by all experts, however. For instance, defense analyst Aleksandr Khramchikhin has argued that “at this point, the decision to create a new army looks more like an organizational initiative, not a concrete strategy… It is still unclear which units will constitute the backbone of the new formation.” He also suggested that, “even if forces currently located in Kamchatka acquire a new name, nothing will change” (Commentarii.ru, December 19, 2017).
Thus, if it is correct to assume that the new EMD army-sized formation will come about as a result of a restructuring of current units rather than additional deployments to the region, the real purpose of this force reform may be to create (or attempt to do so) an integrated missile defense system for the Far East. Some of the military exercises carried out in 2016 (held in the Caucasus, the Crimean Peninsula and central Russia) may serve as a templet for what Moscow hopes to achieve. However, information from Russian sources suggests that those exercises did not deliver the results that had been anticipated: the forces involved were found to lack coordination and experienced multiple communications problems (Izvestia, August 31, 2016). In 2017, somewhat similar exercises were carried out in Russia’s European part prior to the September Zapad 2017 strategic military exercises (see EDM, September 13, 20, 2017). Yet there is a conspicuous lack of credible information on the matter.
According to Russian thinking, an integrated system of missile defense is particularly effective when defensive capabilities (so-called “shield”) are supplement by counter-offensive ones (“sword”). Russian experts claim this balance is currently being established in the EMD theater via the integrated use of strategic aviation and missile-defense elements (such as, for example, S-400 complexes) (Eg.ru, January 8, 2018). The recent deployments of S-400s to Primorsky Krai, which commenced at the end of December 2017, may be evidence of this approach (Izvestia, December 22, 2017). That being said, a number of Russian military experts have argued that Russia lacks the strategic potential to deter a potential missile attack in the Far East (RIA Novosti, August 11, 2017).
This capabilities gap, however, is a part of a larger problem. The lack of economic resources and absence of a clear regional strategy, coupled with political narrow-mindedness with respect to potential regional foes, constitute a far greater challenge to Russia.