Mistral amphibious assault ship. Creative Commons photo, Flickr user FaceMePLS.

Itar-Tass reported Tuesday that Russia plans to use the first two of the Mistral amphibious assault ships it is purchasing from France “to protect the south Kurile Islands.” Russia is planning on buying at least three of the ships, the first two of which will be built in France. There’s been a lot of speculation about where these ships will be deployed, once operational. The Northern Fleet, for the Atlantic? The Black Sea Fleet, where they could be used against Georgia? Syria, where they could operate throughout the Middle East? No. The first two ships are headed to the Pacific Fleet, for defense of the Kuril islands.

The international press has been leaping to connect this news with Russia’s recent reassertion of its claim to the Kurils. Why the Kurils, of all places? Is this directed at Japan? Could Russia be up to something?

The answer to the last two questions: probably not. This is more about — finally — revamping Russian defenses after the end of the Cold War than about intimidating the Japanese (although, from the Russian perspective, that’s not such a bad thing either.) Russia is overhauling its defenses in the Far East, an area that hasn’t received a lot of attention from the formerly cash-strapped Russian government, and didn’t receive a whole lot of attention from the Soviets, either. It may look provocative, but Russia’s far eastern defenses are so decrepit any substantial improvement looks like a buildup.

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From Itar-Tass:

“Considerable appropriations will be made for improving the infrastructure of military compounds and garrisons of the 18th Artillery Division in the Eastern Military District, which are deployed on the islands of the Kurile Ridge. The division stationed in the South Kurile Islands has not undergone any organisational changes during military reform in Russia,” the source told Itar-Tass on Wednesday, February 9. (Link)

The 18th Artillery Division is on Iturup, one of the four main islands that Japan has laid claim to. The division headquarters is in the town of Goryachiye Klyuchi, and there are division elements on the island of Kunashir. Russian Artillery Divisions, also known as Machine Gun – Artillery Divisions, are fixed formations that were used to defend the Soviet frontier during the Cold War. They were an economy of force formation for places that just didn’t merit a Motor-Rifle Division, but could’t afford to be left unguarded. Think of machine gun nests, preregistered artillery, and obsolete tank turrets in fixed casemates. Artillery Divisions usually got the best equipment last — there were reports of T-35/85 and Josef Stalin III tank turrets manning the frontier as late as the end of the Cold War. Now, consider that the division has not been modernized since the end of the Cold War and you get the impression that the 18th Division is useful more as a political marker than a fighting force.

From Red Thrust, FMSO, Fort Leavenworth. Via Armchair General.

The matter of upgrading the 18th Division’s equipment may not be primarily political. Consider that the 18th Artillery Division, stuck on a bunch of small islands on the periphery of Russia’s periphery, was visited by Prime Minister Medvedev last November, followed by Moscow’s First Deputy Prime Minster, and the Regional Development Minister. Having seen firsthand myself the pride of Russia’s Pacific Fleet and with the understanding that military life in such farflung outposts as Irutup and Kunashir tend to be squalid, harsh, and brutal, it’s quite possible that Medvedev was shocked by what he saw and ordered his defense minister to go see it for himself. The Defense Minster, Serdyukov, visited a few months later, and immediately a number of improvements were scheduled.

There’s no logical reason to station both Mistrals with Russia’s Pacific Fleet. Russia really doesn’t have a need to project power beyond its far eastern borders. And it is remarkably easy to imagine Medvedev, upon visiting the Kurils’ defenses, think to himself that it would be much better to put 10,000 men on ships where they can range up and down the Russian coast — and be available for external missions — than to strand them on some remote islands off the Eurasian coast. Two Mistral ships give the Russians the ability to put a better part of a Naval Infantry Brigade anywhere it wants. And it’s a bold gesture that signifies that, in the Asia-Pacific region, the Russians are back and paying attention.

In the end, it may be that the 18th Division as mainstay of Russia’s Kuril defenses may be de-emphasized, and the unit itself may shrink down to a mere screening force. The Division is a logistical hassle, and quite likely an operational embarrassment. Instead, Russian Naval Infantry, riding in two Mistrals, could provide a mobile defense for much of the Russian Far East. It’s better to have a mobile force at sea that can do numerous things and go many places than a static force that is useful only for protecting a handful of islands. In essence, such a force would be quite like the Japanese Marine Corps that is receiving widespread backing in the Japanese government for protecting the Senkakus.

As for the tough talk accompanying the announcement, it’s always better (particularly in Russia) to frame the solution to a problem as protecting the people from an outside threat instead of rectifying state neglect.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch