Confrontations—and alleged confrontations—between the Russian armed forces and those of the United States, Europe and Japan have been on the uptick in recent weeks. The encounters have paced a general decline in relations between Russia and the West over events in the Ukraine.
This month Russian media have reported two alleged anti-submarine warfare operations undertaken against American and Japanese submarines. The confrontations are reminiscent of similar events during the Cold War, in which submarines of the Soviet Union, the United States and her allies played a constant cat-and-mouse game against one another.
This time however, the rationale behind the incidents appears more complex, undertaken by Russia as often for internal reasons as for making a larger point to the international community.
According to Russian state media, on Aug. 7 a foreign submarine was allegedly expelled from Russian-controlled waters in the Barents Sea. A Northern Fleet spokesman stated that Russian anti-submarine forces, consisting of surface ships and an Ilyushin Il-38 Maymaritime patrol aircraft had chased off what was presumed to be a U.S. Virginia-class attack submarine.
A spokesman for European Command later denied that the event took place, saying that no U.S. submarines had been operating in the area.
The incident—as well as an incident a week earlier, in which a U.S. Air Force RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint aircraft was harassed in international airspace over the Baltic Sea—appears meant to send a message to Russia’s neighbors. The message to pro-NATO countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, is that Russia is more than capable of successfully confronting the U.S. presence in Europe and ejecting American forces if necessary.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Russia came a report last week about a similar incident involving a Japanese submarine. A report in the Russian business daily Kommersant, citing a source in the Defense Ministry, said Russian anti-submarine warfare units had forced a Japanese Oyashio-class submarine to cut short a patrol near the border between the two countries.
The alleged incident occurred in the La Perouse Strait, known to Japan as the Soya Strait, a narrow passage between the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido and the Russian island of Sakhalin. The La Perouse Strait is a mere 43 miles across, and depth at the strait is approximately 60 meters. Japan claims an international water boundary of a mere three miles at the strait, instead of the usual 12, allegedly to allow nuclear-armed American warships crossing the strait to skirt and not enter Japanese waters.
The La Perouse Strait has been an important defensive bastion for Japanese submarines since the Cold War, when it was feared that Soviet forces would launch an invasion of Hokkaido from Sakhalin. In wartime, two or three Maritime Self-Defense Force submarines would guard the strait to prevent an amphibious invasion.
The Oyashio-class diesel attack submarines are older members of Japan’s submarine fleet, having been superseded by the newer Soryu class. The submarine involved would have been from the Maritime Self Defense Force base at Yokosuka.
On Wednesday, according to ITAR-TASS, the Russian government took the unusual step of denying a confrontation had actually took place. “The Japanese submarine detected in the La Perouse Strait on Wednesday did not violate international law and did not cross the Russian state border,” a source at the Russian General Staff reported. Why the story of a confrontation came to light in the first place is unknown.
The incident took place while Russian forces, including 1,000 ground troops, five Mi-8AMTSh armed transport helicopters, and 100 military vehicles staged an exercise on the Russian-held southern Kuril Islands. The southern Kurils, four islands seized from Japan by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, are still claimed by Japan. Japan, where the islands are known as the Northern Territories, has tried to get Russia to return the islands for decades without avail. Japan protested the exercises, calling them “totally unacceptable.”
Japan also recently imposed sanctions on Russia for its part in events in the Crimea. The exercise, as well as the reported encounter with the Japanese submarine, are likely signals to Japan that Russia is still in control of the southern Kurils and can be a complicated neighbor, to put it mildly.
Another, more direct reason for these events is to divert attention within Russia from negative news harmful to the government of Vladimir Putin. Unlike the Cold War, in which the Soviet government did not have to compete internally with the Western narrative of world events, the Russian government must do so. The controlling relationship between Russian state media and Moscow makes it possible for the Putin government to promote alternatives to negative news and events.
The alleged expulsion of the Virginia-class submarine from the Barents Sea likely had another purpose as propaganda. The news broke in Russia on a Saturday, when it could dominate Russian news for the weekend. The following Tuesday, 12 August, was the 14th anniversary of the sinking of the Russian cruise missile submarine Kursk. Kursk sank with all 118 hands aboard in the Barents and the rescue effort by the government of then-president Putin was later criticized by many as inept. The anniversary was marked in Murmansk, Kursk, and several Northern Fleet bases with commemorative events.
Russia Today, in reporting the alleged expulsion, said “Such actions by the NATO undersea fleet have led to a number of navigation incidents in the Arctic”and then quoted a source in the Russian navy as stating that that, “A collision with (sic) U.S. nuclear submarine, Toledo, was one the main explanations of the Kursk submarine tragedy in 2000.” The net result was that the anniversary of the Kursk sinking was overshadowed by an incident that illustrated Russian strength.
Similarly, the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 by Ukrainian separatists—and likely Russian complicity in the event—must now compete for attention against news reports of Russian forces defending their borders against American intruders. Creating incidents in which Russian strength is on display, offers a more positive alternative to reports of Russian ineptitude and involvement in the Crimea.
Confrontations between Russian and U.S., NATO and Japanese forces at sea will likely continue for the duration of the Putin administration. A major concern is that, aside from projecting the bellicosity of the Putin regime, such a confrontation could spark a major incident at sea. However, in an ironic twist, such events provide the West with an opportunity to study Russian military forces and detect strengths and weaknesses, as well as collect technical information on Russian equipment.