Why is Russia flexing in the Pacific?
London—Russia once loomed large in the Pacific region. As well as Alaska, the Russian Empire boasted an outpost at Fort Ross, California, and three military posts in Hawaii.
In 1803, the Russian admiral and explorer, Adam Johann von Krusenstern, made it to the Marshall Islands as part of Russia’s first circumnavigation of the globe.
This spring, Russia confirmed that it had boosted its Pacific Fleet. A division of its Bastion coastal defense systems was deployed to the Kuril Island of Paramushir. It is now on the highest level of combat readiness as Russia wages its so-called military operation in Ukraine.
The question is why?
According to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, the move is part of a wider strengthening of Russia’s defenses in its huge far eastern regions. Shoigu said it was partly in response to what he called U.S. efforts to “contain” Russia and China. Shoigu said the system would bolster Russian security around the Kuril Islands. Since last year, Russia’s armed forces in the country’s east have received around 400 items of modern military equipment, including Su-57 jets and anti-aircraft missile systems.
It might seem an odd move given that Ukraine is expected to begin its spring counteroffensive any day now. But it comes off the back of two high-profile visits of Chinese and Japanese heads of state to Russia and Ukraine respectively. Japan claims four of the Kuril Islands (not including Paramushir) and has sanctioned Russia more than any other Asia-Pacific nation. It was highly critical of recent naval drills in the Pacific, whereas China has been coy about its support for Russia.
According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Russia’s Pacific Fleet is not actually thought to be ‘combat ready’ – or capable of waging battle. Instead, the ISW reckons the move is more likely designed to please Beijing, and show Xi Xinping that it supports China’s military ambitions in the Pacific. Further, the ISW noted that Russia likely wants to show it remains an equal military power in the Pacific and can operate as one.
There are political considerations, as well. Some of it is no doubt an attempt at deterring Japan and the U.S. from mobilizing in the North Pacific. Raising the alarm about a potential conflict here, it is hoped, might dent Japanese support for Ukraine.
Next, of course, is the fact that America’s presidential election is already underway. Should former President Donald Trump bag the Republican nomination (as is widely expected), the prospect of waning U.S. support for Ukraine becomes real. Then again, it could be with any Republican president; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to announce a presidential bid, recently questioned the necessity of supporting Ukraine. GOP members on the Hill, meanwhile, are increasingly skeptical of supporting Ukraine. If the GOP captures the presidency and Congress, all bets are off.
Russia’s military presence in the Pacific dates back to 1731 when Peter the Great founded the Pacific Fleet. Headquartered near the Far Eastern port city of Vladivostok, the fleet has always been relatively small. In part, that is because Russia was rarely threatened by the Pacific. Its largest battle was the Russo-Japanese War 1904-05, which ended unfavorably for Russia.
A military conflict in the Pacific would inevitably cause Russia problems in the West though. The need to divert resources from the borders with Ukraine, Estonia, Finland and Poland leaves its “western corridor” exposed and prone to instability. The Western corridor refers to an area of Russia’s west, Belarus and Poland, thought to be Russia’s weakest point. Unlike other parts of the country, there are no natural land boundaries – or anything except an extreme climate and forest – protecting Moscow from an attack. The Poles, Swedes, French and Germans have all attacked Russia here in the past, often successfully.
The logistics of moving military equipment to Russia’s Pacific coast is another logistical nightmare. Its terrain ranges from deserts to the arctic tundra, and mountainous regions to flat steppes and forestry. It is the same distance from St. Petersburg to New York as it is from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.
Russia’s demography plays a big role: just 35 million of Russia’s 146 million population lives east of the Ural Mountains and this number continues to shrink; Russia’s birth rate is in decline and internal migration sees the Far East losing out. Yet, if the largest part of the country remains virtually uninhabited, protecting it will be even harder.
The Pacific might not be priority number one for the Kremlin, but like in Africa, it must remain a bit-player in the region. Surrendering the Pacific doesn’t create the appearance of the great power that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to portray. Plus, if the Ukraine war doesn’t go its way, the Kremlin runs the risk of exposing weaknesses on other fronts. The North Pacific will be the first place people look.
Dr. James C. Pearce is a historian and author of "The Use of History in Putin's Russia." He previously worked at the University of Liverpool and the College of the Marshall Islands, and lived in Russia for almost a decade. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org