The Kuril Islands: Power projection and resource protection

The Kuril Islands: Power projection and resource protection

The Kuril Islands dispute between Russia and Japan is not so much noteworthy with respect to its past origins, but rather for what it portends for Russia’s future foreign policy direction.

Recently, Japan has stated that it is inappropriate to host a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin due to the ongoing dispute and recent Russian investment in militarization projects on the islands.

These projects, in conjunction with Russia’s Pacific Fleet base at Vladivostok, will allow Russia to project power into several local theaters simultaneously, reflective of its more assertive foreign policy.

Northeast Asia

Originally, Russia’s economic hope was to use Japan’s technological expertise and financial acumen to develop and improve resource extraction in the Russian Far East in the near-term.

Strategically, Russia was also looking to Japan to help balance the rise of its quasi-ally, China. However, as Japan has sided with the West in the application of sanctions against Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, these two aspirations look ever more remote.

Consequently, Japan now finds its airspace target of regular aircraft incursions from China to the Southwest and now Russia to the North. Future Russian incursions based out of the Kuril Islands are likely to continue, as Russia knows Japan is the anchor of the US “rebalance” to Asia.

However, it is a vulnerable anchor due to its resource dependency and proximity to Russia, the world’s largest oil producer and natural gas exporter. Similarly to how China recently highlighted Japan’s rare-earth element (REE) dependency, Russia will be using its own resources to weaken the US play in the Pacific through its proxy Japan.

Alaskan intrusions

Unlike the defensive Russian strategy of the early 2000s, which were primarily concerned with the post-Soviet countries, the future Russian foreign policy strategy is likely to be much more assertive.

In this region, this is particularly going to be the case around Alaska. Similarly to Russian air incursions into Japanese airspace, there have been several instances of Russian aircraft flying in proximity to US airspace near the state.

The Kuril Islands form the northernmost portion of the First Island Chain, which China is trying to break through in Southeast Asia in order to reach the Second Island Chain and expand its influence. Russia has taken notice of this and Beijing’s strategic importance placed on its Hainan Island military facility and is looking to replicate its model northward.

In the long-term, any future Russian military base on the Kuril Islands will help not only protect Russia’s local oil and natural gas reserves, but also project power close to US shores and airspace.

Specifically, Russia is proactively intimating that it will tolerate no interference from other great powers in this geographic area and that if interference does occur, it has the ability to reciprocate at will, a capability which China has also recently demonstrated near Alaska.

The Arctic holy grail

Similar to how a Kuril Islands military presence will help supplement Vladivostok’s place in Russia’s Pacific Ocean strategy, it will also aid Russia’s current and planned Arctic military bases in their implementation of its Arctic strategy.

Unlike Central Asia, where Russia has effectively ceded economic primacy to China, it will be unwilling to do so in the Arctic, preferring military as well as economic preeminence. This is because current estimates show the Arctic is even more resource-rich than Central Asia in oil, gas, and REEs.

Additionally, Russia has the longest Arctic coastline. Lastly, the Northern Sea Route runs through Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and aims to more effectively connect markets from Europe to Asia and vice-versa, similar to China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

Any military base on the Kuril Islands will be close enough to the Bering Sea, the gateway to the Arctic from East Asia, to protect Russia’s economic interests while also serving as a deterrent of sorts against outside powers.

The Arctic is not a busy international commercial route yet on the order of the South China Sea, but by strategically building and re-building military bases in the vicinity, Russia is planning several moves ahead.

Putin’s thesis

Summarily, the Kuril Islands dispute is just one element in Russia’s overall strategy of using its geography, natural resource endowment, and proximity to resource-hungry states to underwrite its development.

This was the core of Putin’s doctoral thesis almost twenty years ago and comes as no surprise to close Russia-watchers today. This economic development is underwriting Russia’s re-emergence as a great power and should be expected to continue in the future.


This article originally appeared on our partner site Geopolitical Monitor.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Robert Matthew Shines

Robert Matthew Shines is a U.S. Foreign Policy Analyst & Project Manager with Bright Group Consulting, where he provides confidential geopolitical forecasting services regarding various aspects of U.S.-China foreign policy. Additionally, he is an Expert | Geopolitical Intelligence with RANE, an information and advisory services company that connects business leaders to critical risk insights and expertise. He is also an Analyst with the Foreign Policy Association where he writes blogs on foreign policy analysis. As a Senior Analyst and Editor with Global Risk Insights, he provides analysis on political risk & geopolitics. Lastly, he is a Writer for Geopoliticalmonitor Intelligence Corporation, an international intelligence publication which provides comprehensive geopolitical analysis. Having previously consulted in Ukraine, his area of focus is U.S.-Russia relations. He received his MBA from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a focus on U.S.-China relations.