MOSCOW -- Russia has deployed troops and military hardware to the Kuril Islands for drills that seem calculated to make Japan, which claims the southern tail of the archipelago, think twice about its support for the West's tough line on Ukraine.
The exercises began Tuesday and are expected to last through this month. Attack helicopters and around 100 other military vehicles will take part, according to Russia's defense ministry, which did not elaborate on the nature or location of the training.
The islands stretch from the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island. Japan claims sovereignty over four of them, which it calls the Northern Territories.
This marks Russia's first extensive military exercises in four years that include the Northern Territories. Speaking to reporters, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called them "totally unacceptable."
The Japanese government tried through diplomatic channels to dissuade Moscow from going ahead with the drills, but to no avail. That Russia chose to play war games in the remote island chain at this time shows its displeasure with Japan for joining Western efforts to punish its Ukraine intervention. Moscow decried Japan's decision last week to impose new sanctions, including asset freezes on figures linked to President Vladimir Putin's government, and said it was postponing talks on the Northern Territories dispute.
This is the only issue in which Russia has leverage against Japan, says Dmitry Streltsov, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Compared with the European countries that buy loads of natural gas from Russia, Japan depends little on it economically.
Meanwhile, Washington is pressing Tokyo to ratchet up pressure on Putin. Given its need for American backup in contending with China, Japan "can't do anything that compromises its alliance with the U.S.," a government source said. Tokyo is unlikely to risk falling out of step with Western partners on the Ukrainian situation just to please Moscow.
Time is running out to finalize plans for Putin's proposed trip to Japan this fall. Abe had hoped the visit would build momentum for resolving the island dispute. But his freedom to roll out the red carpet looks increasingly contingent on relations between Russia and the U.S. Tokyo has already scrapped a number of diplomatic initiatives toward Russia, including a trip by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, out of deference to Washington.
"The drawn-out standoff between the U.S. and Russia is making it increasingly doubtful that President Putin will visit Japan this year," said a senior Japanese foreign ministry official.
Still, "Russia has high hopes for Abe's independent foreign policy, as evinced by his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in defiance of U.S. hand-wringing," said a diplomatic source.
Perhaps because Japanese sanctions have been relatively mild, Russia has spared Japan the bans on food imports that it leveled against the U.S. and European countries. Count on Tokyo and Moscow to avoid a decisive split as they continue their delicate diplomatic dance.