Russian Military Drills in Asia Spark Japan Anger
Comment of the Day

August 13 2014

Commentary by David Fuller

Russian Military Drills in Asia Spark Japan Anger

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.

David Fuller's view

Russia has only two trump cards – its regionally powerful military and its energy resources of oil and gas.  So far, Russia has not extended its energy restrictions beyond Ukraine, as that would be an own goal for Putin’s economy.  However, Russia is flexing its military muscles.  This presumably makes Putin feel stronger and it is intimidating Eastern European countries.  This does not seem very clever because far from making friends and allies, it only reminds countries such as Estonia and Latvia why they joined the European Union and NATO. 

Meanwhile, European and US stock markets are experiencing some short covering.  There is also some opportunistic bargain hunting in Europe where valuations are low and there is little chance of any interest rate hikes for the foreseeable future. 

Putin the warrior is also playing Putin the humanistic peacenik, in sending those white, nameless (why not Trojan?) trucks towards the Ukrainian border.  If this was a film, people would say that it was cheesy and lacking in credibility.  Yes, but unfortunately it is probably in for a long run. 

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