Submarine incident in flashpoint Kuril Islands


Amid quickly escalating tensions over Ukraine, Russia has lodged a diplomatic protest with the US embassy in Moscow, claiming that a US nuclear submarine penetrated Russian territorial waters near the Kuril Islands. According to Moscow’s Defense Ministry, a Virginia-class US Navy submarine was detected Feb. 12 off Urup Island, where Russia’s Pacific Fleet was conducting exercises. The Defense Ministry said the submarine was chased off by Russian vessels, and retreated at “maximum speed.” The statement accused the US of a “violation of Russia’s state border.” The Pentagon issued a statement, saying: “There is no truth to the Russian claims of our operations in their territorial waters.” US President Joe Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin spoke by phone for an hour later that day to discuss Ukraine, but according to the Kremlin the Kurils incident was not brought up. (TASS, Reuters)

Media accounts did not emphasize that whether this purported incident indeed took place in Russian waters is questionable, as the Kurils are in part claimed by Japan. At the February 1945 Yalta Conference, the US supported Soviet claims to the Kuril Islands, which were seized from the Japanese in the closing days of World War II that August. However, Japan continued to claim four islands in the chain. A Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration on outstanding border conflicts in 1956 put off the question of the disputed islands to a future peace treaty. At this time, the US stated that the southernmost islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri have historically been sovereign Japanese territory, and therefore should be considered excluded from terms of the Yalta Declaration. Tokyo still refuses to recognize Russian rule over the disputed islands, which has effectively prevented Russia and Japan from ever entering a treaty to formally end their World War II hostilities. (Modern Diplomacy, EU Reporter, Centre for Security & Strategy Studies, New Delhi)

Urup is the next island to the north of the Japanese-claimed Etorofu (Iturup to the Russians), separated by just some 25 kilometers.

Two days before the supposed incident off Urup, a Russian Foreign Ministry representative accused Tokyo of fueling “hysteria” over the Kuril Islands question. Last year, Russia passed sweeping legislative reforms that, among an array of other measures, made it unconstitutional to cede territory to a foreign power. (WION News, India)

Russia over the past weeks has conducted naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean, the North Sea, and northeast Atlantic Ocean, as well as the Pacific and Sea of Okhotsk. The drills together involved 140 warships and support vessels, 60 planes, and about 10,000 troops. (Al Jazeera) The Kuril Islands form the barrier separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the open Pacific Ocean.

Map: International Kuril Island Project

  1. Ukraine: mounting signs of imminent Russian invasion

    Despite the nonchalant public posture of President Volodymyr Zelensky, unsettling signs of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine continue to mount. Over the weekend, the US military said it had withdrawn about 150 National Guard troops who were assisting the Ukrainian military as trainers. (NYT) The US has also moved its embassy from Kiev to Lviv, further to the west. (The Hill) These are not the kind of moves that would be taken unless Washington genuinely feared an invasion.

    Biden has approved an emergency weapons shipment to Ukraine, but it appears to be mostly small arms—wholly inadequate to what they’re going to need in the actual event of an invasion. (Politico) Meanwhile, it has fallen to Lithuania to undertake an emergency transfer of anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. (Reuters) Germany, famously compromised by the Nord Stream pipeline, is refusing to send weapons—and reportedly sought to block Estonia from transfering German-supplied weapons to Ukraine. (BBC News, DW)

    Reported in Russian media but not Western are claims that Ukrainian forces are preparing a new offensive to retake the “Luhansk People’s Republic,” one of the two Russian-sponsored separatist enclaves in the eastern Dobass region, in violation of ceasefire agreements. We are told that "The situation in Donbass deteriorated dramatically on Jan. 9, when Ukrainian troops resumed shelling along the entire contact line after a lengthy ceasefire." (TASS)

    Responding to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s voiced disatisfaction with the 2015 Minsk Agreement, aimed at limiting the Donbass conflict, Putin said in true fascist style: “Like it or don’t like it, it’s your duty, my beauty.” This is a clear sexual innuendo in Russian culture, aimed at feminizing and humiliating. (CNN)

    Kiev meanwhile chages that Russia’s massive naval maneuvers in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov amount to a de facto blockade of Ukraine’s ports, and have interrupted commercial shipping. (EuroMaidan Press) 

    In the contest over whether Ukraine will be allowed to join NATO, Russia and the US appear to be talking over the head of Ukraine itself, so to speak. In February 2019, just two months before Zelensky won the presidency, the Rada (parliament) enshrined Ukraine’s NATO aspirations in the country’s constitution. The president is now constitutionally mandated serve as “guarantor of the country’s strategic course to acquire membership in the EU and NATO.” So any attempt by Zelensky to veer from this policy would be unconstitutional. Moscow notes that this a far cry from Kiev’s announced intention to “become a permanently neutral state” in its 1990 Declaration of State Sovereignty. But of course that was well before Russia’s annexation of Crimea and sponorship of separatist enclaves in the Dobass. (Russia Matters)

  2. Duma approves resolution to recognize Donbass ‘republics’

    The lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, the State Duma, voted to approve a resolution calling upon President Vladimir Putin to recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People's Republic (LPR) as independent states. The appeal purports that the Ukrainian government is in violation of the Minsk agreement, a 2015 ceasefire deal, and is committing "genocide of their own people." However, High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell Fontelles said the EU "strongly condemns" the resolution and believes recognition of the regions would violate the Minsk agreement. (Jurist)

  3. Coordinated cyber-attacks on Ukraine government

    A series of cyber-attacks on Feb. 15 knocked the websites of the Ukrainian army, Defense Ministry and major banks offline. The so-called distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks were coordinated and well planned, officials said, calling it “the largest [such attack] in the history of Ukraine.” (CNN,  AP)

    Coordinated cyber-attacks also took out Ukrainian government websites last month.

  4. Further escalation in Donbass

    Ukraine and Russia-backed separatists in an eastern district of Luhansk are trading allegations of an escalation in fighting along the line of control. The Ukrainian military’s command center in the east on Feb. 17 alleged that Russian-backed forces fired heavy artillery at the village of Stanytsia-Luhanska “with special cynicism.” A kindergarten was apparently hit, with two civilians wounded. The separatists are of course blaming the Ukrainian military for the strikes. (Al Jazeera)

     Yan Leshchenko, head of the Lugansk People’s Republic’s (LPR) Militia said on Feb. 17: “Over the past 24 hours, the situation at the line of combat engagement has significantly escalated. The adversary, following direct orders of Kiev’s military-political leadership, is undertaking attempts to aggravate the conflict.” (TASS)

    President Vladimir Putin said on Feb. 15 that Russia does not want a war in Europe, but described the situation in east Ukraine’s breakaway regions as “genocide” and called for the conflict there to be resolved through the Minsk peace process. (Reuters)

  5. ‘Genocide’ in Donbass?

    Russia’s Investigative Committee claimed on Feb. 16 that mass graves of hundreds of Russian-speaking civilians had been found in the Donbas region, as the Russian government continued to accuse Ukraine of “genocide” in Donbass.

    The committee claimed that the civilians found in the area controlled by Russian-backed separatists were killed by Ukrainian shelling. “The Investigative Committee continues to take all possible measures to uphold the principle of the inevitability of punishment for those responsible for committing crimes in Donetsk and Luhansk areas,” said the committee. (Jerusalem Post)

  6. Ukraine separatist regions to evacuate civilians to Russia

    The two separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine will launch a “mass evacuation” of civilians into Russia starting Feb. 18, accusing Kiev of planning to invade the breakaway territory. (The Moscow Times)

    Meanwhile, there is no agreement as to which side shelled the village of Stanytsia-Luhanska, and reports have been maddeningly vague on whether it is rebel or government-held territory. A map in The Guardian indicates that it is just within the government-held side of the “line of contact.”

  7. Putin grab for Donbass ‘playing out right now’?

    Walter Zaryckyj, executive director of the Center for US-Ukrainian Relations and a former political science professor at New York University, speaks with New York’s The Village Sun about potential “variants” in Putin’s strategy for Ukraine. The one he sees “playing out right now” is a grab for the “two little breakaway republics.”

    “If they’ve been declared independent…the next step, we believe, will be to annex… March their regular troops in there…. the same way they did with Crimea. Hold a referendum within a day or two… They’ve already passed out half a million Russian passports in those breakaway republics.… Most of the [ethnic] Ukrainians in that area have been chased away… If there is any move by our army, he will say, ‘I’m there to protect the Russian people.'”