One of the most noticeable features of Kavkaz 2012, to those outside of the Caucasus, will be the large participation of the Russian navy. Warships will be coming from the Northern and Baltic Fleets as well as the Black Sea, and the contingent will include amphibious landing ships and naval infantry. These facts suggest an amphibious assault will be part of the exercise, probably on the Black Sea coast of Abkhazia.
Reporting this past week indicates that at least one of the ships coming from the Northern Fleet will be carrying part of the arms shipment to Syria that was stopped in June when the British government had the insurance for Russian freighter M/V Alaed terminated. A flotilla of three landing ships, a destroyer, a frigate, and a fleet oiler can carry a lot of stuff – and could be a deterrent to intervention by European nations if a cargo ship or two happened to conduct the transit with them. Over the last 12 months, I would have assessed that Russia had no interest in testing such a provocation. But more and more bets are off as we head into the next 12.
Russia and Japan
One reason is that over on the other side of Asia, Russia has punctuated her participation in the US-sponsored, multinational naval exercise “RIMPAC 2012” with a major coastal exercise of her own on Sakhalin Island.
Japanese reconnaissance assets counted 26 ships from the Russian Pacific Fleet heading for this exercise on 1 July, making a showy transit of the Soya (La Perouse) Strait. Russian TV – “TV Zvezda,” or “Star,” the TV service of the Russian armed forces – announced the total number of ships involved as 40. (Presumably some ships came from Petropavlovsk rather than Vladivostok, and did not need to exit the Sea of Japan to get to the exercise area. Interestingly, “40” is the number of participants routinely being reported for the RIMPAC exercise, which is being held off Hawaii.)
During this display of force, Dmitri Medvedev, in his revolving political role, made another pointed visit to the disputed Kuril Island of Kunashiri, about 14 miles off the coast of Hokkaido.
Japan isn’t failing to react to the deterioration of her security environment, which from 2010 to now has entailed large naval groups from Russia and Japan transiting ostentatiously through the straits that crisscross her archipelago – along with multiple forays by Russian strategic bombers near Japan’s air space (see here as well), including a five-day exercise in April featuring 40 (there’s that number again) Tu-95 and Tu-22M bombers.
The Japanese diet passed new legislation last month – landmark legislation that truly (if incrementally) signals the end of post-World War II geopolitical conditions. In amending Japan’s 1950s-era Basic Law on atomic energy, the upper house in June quietly added language authorizing the use of nuclear technology to “contribute” to “national security.” Blogger Ampontan outlines the Japanese partisan politics behind the move; the regional geopolitics behind it are blindingly obvious. I concur with Ampontan that any undertaking to actually acquire nuclear weapons will involve a lot of time. But a door has been opened that the Japanese themselves held firmly shut for nearly 60 years. When the decision to arm is made, I expect Japan to act quickly.
Also hat-tipping Ampontan, I note that the diet voted in late June to permit military space development. With Russia, China, the Koreas, India, and Iran all pursuing military space development, this seems like a sensible and timely decision.
Japan was, moreover, about to sign a pathbreaking military agreement with South Korea in late June, but that event was derailed at the last minute (almost literally), very possibly because of the recent decisions in Tokyo on defense policy. Media reporting cites a popular outcry in South Korea against the pact, and that was undoubtedly an important factor. But the two Japanese defense-policy moves came only days before the proposed signing ceremony, and seem to have been a surprise in Seoul. It appears the natural allies across the Sea of Japan will continue their mating dance a bit longer.
About the Author: J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.
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