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Russian military buildup on disputed isles clouds resolution of row with Tokyo
by Junko Horiuchi

Even though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed their recent agreement on joint economic activities on four disputed islands off Hokkaido is a step toward resolving the territorial row, the islands’ strategic importance for Russia is likely to continue complicating the decades-old issue.

Even if the agreed economic cooperation chiefly in the Russian Far East makes headway, the strategic importance of the Russian-held islands, claimed by Japan, bodes ill for Tokyo in its efforts to regain them, especially given the advance of China in the Arctic region and Russia’s need to maintain its nuclear deterrence, according to some analysts.

Japan claims that Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group are an integral part of its territory and were illegally seized by the Soviet Union after Japan’s surrender in World War II in August 1945. Russia maintains the Soviet Union took the islands legitimately as the spoils of war.

Russia has been modernizing its military on the islands, which delineate the southern edge of the Sea of Okhotsk where Russian nuclear submarines are deployed.

“When the military characteristics of the Northern Territories (disputed islands) are considered, (their importance) is not about the defense of the islands themselves but more about protecting and controlling access to the Sea of Okhotsk that lies inside of the islands,” said Yu Koizumi, a research fellow at the Institute for Future Engineering.

“In that respect, Russia cannot easily concede as the importance of the Northern Territories is closely related to its nuclear deterrence,” he said.

The island chain also lies along the sea lane connecting the Arctic Sea and the Pacific Ocean, an important route for China’s commercial vessels and warships.

Russia has friendly ties with China, but is wary of the influence of the world’s second-largest economy over the region, including the Arctic zone and the Russian Far East, a depopulated and underdeveloped region that shares a long border with China, according to analysts.

Russia has deployed state-of-the-art anti-ship missile systems on two of the disputed islands, and is reportedly set to build a naval base in Matua Island near the center of the Kuril Island chain.

As Putin mentioned during his summit with Abe on Dec. 15, Russia wants to resume the “two-plus-two” dialogue between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers, which has not been held since the first meeting in November 2013 following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014.

Stronger security cooperation with Japan under the two-plus-two framework would allow Russia to avoid depending heavily on ties with China. Closer defense ties with Russia would benefit Japan, which also has tensions with China over a group of Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed islets in the East China Sea.

While Tokyo is apparently hesitant about full-fledged resumption of such talks while the Group of Seven and European countries are imposing sanctions on Russia over the Crimea issue, there may be a silver lining for Japan if Russia wants to keep Japan on its side.

“Russia’s relations with China are currently very strong but, at the same time, it is pursuing closer ties with Japan, a big power in the Asia-Pacific region, as a part of its balancing act,” said Nobuo Shimotomai, a professor of Russian politics at Hosei University.

In its diplomacy toward China, Russia “is keen on improving ties with Japan and other countries neighboring China, such as South Korea and Vietnam,” Shimotomai said.

Why Putin Is Escalating Russia’s Military Buildup
by Samuel Ramani

On May 4, 2016, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu announced that Russia planned to form 3 new military divisions to counter NATO’s growing military presence in Eastern Europe. These new military divisions will consist of 10,000 troops deployed on Russia’s southern and western frontiers. In addition, Shoygu pledged to improve military training for Russian troops and upgrade Russia’s military hardware production to combat the “NATO threat.”

Moscow’s military buildup has increased fears of an imminent Crimea-style Russian military intervention in the Baltic States. These concerns are likely misplaced, however. Even though Putin’s military modernization efforts after the 2008 Georgian War laid the groundwork for the 2014 annexation of Crimea, there is evidence that Russia’s latest military buildup is primarily for domestic consumption.

By demonstrating Russia’s ability to project military power on the world stage, Russian President Vladimir Putin has rallied nationalist sentiments around his government. Kremlin policymakers have also successfully framed Russia’s military buildup as a defensive reaction to NATO and Ukrainian aggression. Putin’s creation of a perpetual external enemy construct has allowed him to maintain consistently high approval ratings during a period of economic recession.

How the Kremlin’s Military Buildup Appeals to Russian Nationalists

Since the outbreak of the Ukraine conflict and the imposition of sweeping sanctions against Russia, Kremlin policymakers have used Russia’s growing military power to rally pro-government nationalism. Immediately after the US and EU banned arms sales to Russia, the Russian government expedited its military modernization efforts. Putin hoped that showcasing Russia’s military strength would rally economic nationalist sentiments around his rule.

As Eugene Rumer and Rajan Menon note in their 2015 book Conflict in Ukraine, Putin’s focus on creating economic nationalism has encouraged the Russian military to produce arms domestically without regard for cost. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin claimed that Russia’s defense industry has been strengthened by protectionist policies that were adopted in response to Western sanctions. In 2014, Putin asked the Russian military to domestically manufacture 90 of Russia’s 200 most frequently imported weapons systems by 2020 and to transition towards complete self-sufficiency as soon as possible.

Putin’s ability to foment pro-government nationalism has been strengthened by increased international recognition of the Russian military’s global power projection capacity. The Russian state media prominently featured US President Barack Obama’s February 2016 description of the Russian military as the “second-most powerful military” in the world.

Obama’s statement contrasted markedly with his 2014 description of Russia as a regional power that invaded Crimea out of weakness. Russian elites have used Obama’s striking change of opinion as proof that Moscow’s military interventions in Ukraine and Syria have boosted Russia’s international status.

To bolster perceptions of Russia as a great power, Putin has made a concerted effort to expand the Russian military’s global reach. The globalization of Russia’s military capabilities has allowed Moscow to expand its military presence in areas outside its sphere of influence, like Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

As Russia-West relations have become increasingly strained, the Russian Defense Ministry has held diplomatic negotiations with countries like Venezuela, Algeria, Vietnam, Singapore and Seychelles to gain access to their port facilities. The creation of a globalized Russian military combined with Moscow’s extra-regional power projection in Syria has increased public perceptions of Russia as a great power and rallied Russian nationalists around Putin’s government.

How Putin has Framed Russia’s Military Buildup in Defensive Terms

Even though NATO policymakers view Russia’s military buildup as aggressive posturing, Kremlin policymakers have insisted that Russia has expanded its military capabilities for defensive purposes. By depicting Russian international conduct as defensive, Putin has been able to rally nationalism around popular opposition to two external actors: NATO and Ukraine.

US policymakers have insisted that NATO’s expanded presence on Russia’s borders makes Eastern European countries more secure from Russian aggression. Russian policymakers have shunned this logic. Kremlin officials believe that NATO’s growing presence is proof of Washington’s covert attempts to undermine Russia’s international influence. This position has been advanced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who alleged in November 2015 that NATO invented Russia as an enemy to remain relevant after its failed mission in Afghanistan.

Putin has also repeatedly emphasized that NATO deployments in Eastern Europe are a threat to Russia’s national security. To demonstrate that Russia is merely responding to NATO “aggression,” Putin claimed on July 1, that NATO flies planes without transponders over the Baltic States twice as often as Russia does. The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that NATO has doubled its military presence on Russia’s borders and has used NATO’s escalation as a justification for its military buildup.

The Russian government’s strident anti-NATO rhetoric has rallied anti-Western nationalists around Putin’s rule. Kremlin policymakers have used multilateralism to demonstrate the growth of Russia’s international status to nationalist constituencies. The increased frequency of CSTO bloc anti-NATO drills, demonstrate to the public that Russia’s leading role in combatting the “NATO threat” is expanding Moscow’s influence.

Russia’s recent military buildup on the Crimea-Ukraine border has fomented anti-Ukrainian nationalism. Kremlin policymakers have become increasingly vocal about the threat posed by the Ukrainian government to Russian and European security. On August 19, Putin declared that the Ukrainian government was sponsoring anti-Russian terrorism and had rebuffed diplomatic negotiations with Moscow. Russian officials have also insisted that the Ukrainian government’s refusal to hold free elections in Donbas is a violation of the Minsk Accords.

Putin’s incendiary rhetoric towards Ukraine is closely linked to his desire to rally pro-government nationalism ahead of the September 2016 Russian legislative elections. Russia’s mobilization of 40,000 troops on the Crimea-Ukraine border has rallied nationalist sentiments around Putin’s rule.

Putin’s defensive posturing is aimed at reframing Europe’s perceptions of the Ukraine conflict. Putin has attempted to prove that the Ukrainian government is stoking the Crimea crisis and that Russia is not a unilateral aggressor in Ukraine. If Putin is able to make a convincing Ukrainian culpability case to Western policymakers, EU sanctions against Russia could be lifted. The removal of sanctions on Moscow’s terms would be a major diplomatic victory for Putin that would rally nationalist sentiments around his government for years to come.

Since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Western policymakers have assumed that Russia’s military buildup is a harbinger of neo-imperial expansion. However, this perspective mischaracterizes Russian foreign policy, as it neglects the importance of domestic politics in Putin’s strategic calculus. The increasingly prohibitive costs of territorial expansion suggest that Russia’s military buildup is primarily aimed at rallying pro-Putin nationalist sentiments and distracting the public from Russia’s economic malaise. Barring a massive change in the dynamic of Russia-West relations, Russia’s fast-track military modernization will likely be an enduring feature of the CIS security landscape for years to come.

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who writes regularly for the Washington Post, Huffington Post and Diplomat Magazine amongst other publications. He can be followed on Facebook at Samuel Ramani and on Twitter at samramani2.

US-NATO 'Buildup on Russian Border Could Lead to Nuclear War' - Nobel Laureate

US political leaders have falsely accused Moscow of threatening NATO member states while the alliance aggressively builds up military forces on Russia’s border, Nobel Peace Prize winner and global peace activist Helen Caldicott told Sputnik.

WASHINGTON (Sputnik) — On Thursday, US Secretary of Defense nominee James Mattis told a Senate committee in confirmation hearings that NATO must build capacity in eastern Europe to deter Russia’s alleged aggression. This came a day after Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson testified that the
United States would defend NATO member states if Russia invaded.

"There is little or no evidence that Russia is being aggressive towards the NATO countries," Caldicott, co-winner of the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize, told Sputnik. “That is a lie that the United States insists on maintaining."

Caldicott pointed out, however, that it was the United States and NATO, not Russia, that was building up its armed forces to unprecedented levels in central and eastern Europe and exacerbating tensions in the region.

"The severely provocative buildup of military forces, ABM [anti-ballistic missile] systems and equipment on the Russian border is at the least unnecessary and at the most could lead to a nuclear war with Russia," Caldicott warned.

Far from threatening nuclear war, the Russian government and media were warning their people about the dangers of the NATO military buildup, Caldicott claimed.

"Indeed, the Russian press and leading politicians in the Duma are now postulating that this could well be a future reality, and they are encouraging the Russian population to practice drills to shelter themselves from nuclear war," she said.

The American public and US policymakers also need to take the threat of nuclear war and the nightmarish consequences that would flow from it far more seriously, Caldicott explained.

In the event of any thermonuclear conflict breaking out between Russia and the United States and NATO "we are all doomed to die a dreadful death of vaporization, severe burns, acute radiation sickness, or freezing and starving to death in the nuclear winter that will ensue," Caldicott admonished.

Although US Vice President Joe Biden praised the record of outgoing President Barack Obama on reducing the threat of nuclear war during his eight years in office, Caldicott said Obama’s anti-Russian policies had made the danger far worse.

"What on earth Obama, the once-peace-maker, and [US Secretary of Defense] Ashton Carter think they are doing, God only knows unless they are obeying the dictates of their military industrial masters, who need war or the risk of such to survive economically,"

Caldicott added. Caldicott expressed the hope that President-elect Donald Trump would reverse the US force build-up in Eastern Europe after he took office on January 20.

"Once Trump is inaugurated one hopes that his close relationship with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will lead to rapid withdrawal of these forces and a refashioning of the relationship between Russia and the United States which may ensure our survival," she said.

Caldicott is the author of many books, including "The New Nuclear Danger: George W. Bush’s Military Industrial Complex" and "War in Heaven: The Arms Race in Outer Space."
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