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Russia's Kuril Islands Naval Base: What It Means Strategically

Admiral Gorshkov class of guided missile frigate
Admiral Gorshkov class of guided missile frigate

When a 200 member expedition of the Russian Ministry of Defence, and the Russian Geographical Society landed on Matua Island in the disputed Kuril chain, there's little doubt the Japanese and their US allies were paying close attention. The expedition, which is now reviewing the state of infrastructure on the abandoned Soviet military base there, will almost certainly recommend the volcanic outpost for a giant naval outpost. Here's a look into why. 

Matua Island is of imminent strategic importance for a Russia emerging as a dominant power in Asia and the world. This is true for a number of reasons including; Russia's need to rapidly develop in the Far East, for revamped ties with China, and especially for defending her borders and interests in the Pacific Basin. Japan and Russia have had an ongoing rift over these islands, but not for obvious reasons. While Japanese insistence on the islands being returned appear geographic/nationalistic, alliances and strategies play a much larger role. During the Soviet Battle of the Kuril Islands in the last weeks of World War II, the Japanese garrison surrendered without resistance to Stalin's forces.

Soviet military units display captured Japanese flags after having seized the Kuril Islands in 1945

Then president Harry Truman acquiesced to Stalin, and an agreement in between the two allies on Japan, and the Kurils became Russian territory. Stalin was no fool. He fully understood the significance of these dots of volcanic rock reaching out into the Pacific. To understand the significance he saw, and that the Japan/US alliance sees today, it's necessary to delve into naval history and geography. 

This map of the WW I battle of Jutland illustrates the point of the Kurils base

Russia's Pacific Fleet is currently stationed at a number of fleet bases are located in the Vladivostok area. Vladivostok has been Russia's biggest ice-free naval base since the dawn of Russian naval power, but the port has one major disadvantage. To get into the open sea, Russian ships must pass in between South Korea and Japan through the Tsushima Strait to the south, or past the various naval, air, and  ground-based signals intelligence (SIGINT) stations at Hokkaido Island to the north. Not unlike Germany's High Seas Fleet (Hochseeflotte) in World War I, and Hitler's Kriegsmarine in World War II, Russia has a huge strategic disadvantage in being land-locked from the open seas by potential enemies. Britain and the allies defeated Germany's navies in both wars, owing to this disadvantage. Even superior ships like DKM Bismarck and Tirpitz in World War II, or even air superiority could not negate the geo-strategic import here. No matter how superior the weapons or the numbers, location will always play a pivotal role. 

As you can see, the Kuril base would put Russian naval forces dead into the open sea

The satellite image from Google Earth shows Vladivostok and the "landlocked" Russian Pacific Fleet. A fleet based at Matua is outside the influence of the Japanese Islands, with direct access to the massive open seas of the North and Central Pacific. US surveillance and control of Russian naval movements from this vantage point is geometrically more difficult. With the advent of new weapons technologies like the nuclear tipped missiles from naval variants of the new RS-28 Sarmat heavy liquid-propelled ICBMs, and conventional anti-ship weapons like the Zircon hypersonic ship-to-ship weapons, Russia's capability to strike anywhere in the world will be magnified exponentially. The greater significance of these recent strategic moves is Russia's defensive reaction to what has been termed "America's Asia Pivot", or US strategic focus on the South China Sea and other important crisis points offshore. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin were clearly in shap focus onto these subjects. 

Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, left, inspects a machine gun regiment during his visit to Iturup Island

So, while Japan is expressing concern over these new developments, it is the US coalition and her NATO allies that should be most concerned. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has already announced proposed deployment of missile systems to these islands, and Bal and Bastion shore-to-ship missiles and Eleron-3 drones will be deployed on the islands before the end of this year, according to this report from NEO. Faced with the prospect of a Russian fleet unleashed into the open Pacific, and Japan's delicate position close to Russia, Amercian leadership will clearly have to make great strides in order to counterbalance Russia's play here. Japan "inside" the Russian sphere of parterns, would be more devastating than any recent Asia detente disaster. And for Japan, remote American allegiance may not be enough to counterbalance Russia and China just miles away. Putin, Abe, Obama, and all the rest understand this. 

The island's runways centrally heated by geothermal water ducted beneath the tarmac. Alongside the runway you can still see rows of German fuel drums.

Forced into a Cold War footing once again, Russia's leadership now acts on shelved plans for military and strategic expansion. Without the cushion of the Warsaw Pact alliance in the west, and continual hard line strategic moves from NATO, Russia's east simply must be secured. Creating a forward base, with unlimited access to the open Pacific, and with eavesdropping and strategic land base air and missile capabilities is absolutely sound judgement on Russia's part. 

The Matua Island naval base project via RT

As an interesting historical side note here, Matua Island bears many interesting peculiarities we would like to explore at a later date. Once a refueling spot for Nazi aircraft destined to and from Japan, the island is also honecombed with a system of tunnels and bomb shelters from WW II. Rumors of traces of refined plutonium having been found in the flooded lower levels of the tunnels add intrique too,. But the old 1.2 kilometer long airfield (above) will certainly see visitation from Russian warplanes should this naval project go forward.