Russia is turning its attention to its eastern borders. For instance, the United Press International reported that on 12 April 2017 the Japanese Air Self Defence Force scrambled multiple fighter jets to intercept the approach of three Russian aircraft’s in Japanese airspace. Russia deployed two Tupolev TU-95MS bombers down the east coast of Japan over the Pacific Ocean, as well as one Ilyushin Il-20 maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft over the Sea of Japan to the west. The Russian sortie comes on the heels of a similar action in January, in which three TU-95MS bombers circumnavigated Japan’s main islands, Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu.
Japan’s Ministry of Defence recently released a statement detailing dramatic increases in the number of jets scrambled by the Japanese Air Self Defence Force in the past fiscal year. The number of jets scrambled has jumped from 873, in the 2015 fiscal year, to 1,168 in the 2016 fiscal year. According to The Diplomat, of those scrambles, the number in response to Russian aircraft’s has risen 4.5% from 288 in the 2015 fiscal year to 301 in 2016. This number is down, however, from 2014 levels, which saw a dramatic increase in the wake of the outbreak of war between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in the Ukraine.
The bulk of Japan’s increased air force activity is attributed to increased Chinese activity in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan, which is related to island-building activities. However, the spike in the response to Russian activity is a sign of increased Russian boldness on the world stage. Reuters reports that, according to Navy Admiral Michelle Howard, head of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Russian naval activity in Europe has exceeded Cold War levels. Russia is reasserting its old Cold War status as a global power by trying to establish regional supremacy through the h exercise of its military power and moves to support allies on its borders. The most notable of these attempts is the annexing of Crimea and support for separatist forces in the Ukraine, as well as the continued support for Syria’s Assad regime, even in the face of continued chemical weapons attacks on his own citizens and increased international pressure.
Russia’s deployment of reconnaissance and bomber aircraft’s around Japan and South Korea should be viewed in the context of increased US Naval presence in the region, such as the Foal Eagle military exercises, which coordinated last month with South Korea and the recent deployment of the USS Carl Vinson. These actions were met with missile tests and threats of nuclear retaliation from Pyongyang. Although North Korea’s nuclear stockpiles are limited and its capacity to deploy such weapons effectively is questionable, Pyongyang has demonstrated that it is able to effectively target Japanese and South Korean strategic targets. When this is paired with a Russian security guarantee, the options available to the West to deal with North Korean braggadocio narrow significantly. Russia is the world’s biggest nuclear power, with 7,300 nuclear weapons, in comparison to The United States’ 6,970 and China’s 260, according to the Federation of American Scientists. Russia is more than capable of providing adequate nuclear deterrence for North Korea and reports from the North Korean state news agency, KCNA, have listed Russia as the regime’s top international friend and ally, above China.
Russia wants to make its presence felt on the world stage, which is forcing the West and the US, in particular, to come to the table and treat Russia with the respect that they feel is due to them as a Great Power. With that said, this poses problems for American primacy and may cause headaches in Washington, thereby dramatically shifting the national security calculus. The other option, however, is a more complex version of the darkest days of the Cold War, in which the US and USSR stared each other down with fingers on the button.
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