The Pacific Pivot has been widely perceived as a U.S. effort to counterbalance a resurgent China. Russia clearly wants to show that power in the region is more than a two-horse race.
Between April and July, the number of Russian surveillance aircraft that came close enough to Japanese air space for Tokyo to scramble its Air Self-Defense Forces jumped more than sixfold from the same period last year and more than doubled the 104 sorties flown to counter Chinese fighters. Long-range Russian patrols also were detected near the U.S. mainland and Guam.
Japan's Foreign Ministry lodged a protest with Russia in August after exercises commenced on two islands seized by the Soviet Union after World War II and claimed by Japan. Russia has vowed to fortify the islands while U.S. ally Japan hopes to negotiate for their return. Last year, Russia held its biggest land and sea military exercise since the Soviet era in Siberia and the Sea of Japan.
Experts are unsure whether the increase in Russian activity is part of a broader policy shift or is tied to the cooling of relations with Japan after Tokyo backed sanctions in June over Moscow's annexation of Crimea and its support of insurgents in Ukraine.
Still, a November visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is still on, according to Japanese media reports.
"The Russians are giving up on the notion that, ‘We are a European power exclusively,'" Rand Corp. political scientist and East Asian affairs expert Scott Harold told Stars and Stripes. "We're seeing an overall trend line of Russian assertiveness, where they try to test the capabilities and will of neighboring countries."
Harold said that includes looking east.
Robert Manning, a senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and its Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council, agreed.
"I suspect Moscow wanted to make a statement that they are a force in the Pacific, and in part, a demonstration of a revived Russian military," he said. "Certainly, Putin was not happy with Japan lining up with its G-7 partners on the Ukraine and imposing sanctions. That may have been a factor."
Although the Russians haven't crossed into Japanese air space, which extends 12 nautical miles from the coast, they have routinely come very close and have circled the island nation with flights that security analysts call the "Tokyo Express." Japanese officials declined to comment.
"We will refrain from making any evaluation of the activities of countries we responded to, and only release the number of times we scramble," a spokesman for the Joint Staff Office said. "We are responding appropriately."
U.S. Defense Department officials referred inquiries to the State Department, which declined to comment on the intercepts but said it recognizes Japan's sovereignty over the islands.
"Recent Russian military exercises in the Northern Territories only serve to exacerbate regional tensions," State Department spokesman Alistair Baskey wrote to Stars and Stripes.
After tangling with Japan several times since 1895, Russia entered the Pacific theater in the waning months of World War II after the allies promised a sphere of influence in Manchuria, the southern portion of Sakhalin, a lease at Port Arthur and the Kurile islands, from which they expelled all Japanese citizens.
A dispute lingers over four islands that the Japanese claim as part of their Northern Territories, extending from Hokkaido. Russia claims they are part of the Kurile chain.
Russia and Japan have never signed a peace treaty formally ending hostilities but restored diplomatic relations in 1956 and have committed to resolving the island dispute.
"From memories of Soviet treatment at the end of World War II, Japan's role in bottling up [Soviet] forces in the Sea of Ohkhotsk during the Cold War, to the dispute over the Northern Territories, Japan has long been somewhat wary of Moscow," Manning said.
Still, Japan has made overtures toward Russia in recent years that many think are designed to open negotiations over the islands.
Abe has met with Putin five times since retaking office in 2012, according to scholars and media reports. He was one of the sole leaders from an industrialized nation to attend the Sochi Olympics opening ceremonies in February.
Japan would also like to see more exported Russian gas, especially with the shutdown of its nuclear plants, according to Manning.
Japan's support of sanctions has complicated the situation. Experts think Abe had unrealistic expectations about Putin.
"The military actions were curious because Abe has had hopes of cutting a deal on the Northern Territories with Putin when the Russian president was to visit Japan in the fall," Manning said. "Putin is not in a mode to give back Russian real estate to anyone."
Display of power
Scholars think the Russian flights are about projecting military power at home and abroad. Some say the muscle flexing could be partly directed toward Japan, while others say that might not be the case.
Theories about the flights abound: They could be the result of an expanding Russian defense budget and military, a Russian attempt to project might without exacerbating the situation in Ukraine or further inflaming the West, a warning to China about contested regions in the Russian Far East, a direct result of U.S.-Korean exercises or a lure to show North Korea that China isn't the only potential ally.
Whatever the reason, they are clearly probing and studying Japanese aerial defenses. Experts agree there is no downside in doing so; some see a link to Putin's impending visit with the disputed islands likely on the agenda.
"Prior to that, he displays Russia's military power," said Toshiyuki Shikata, a retired Japan Ground Self-Defense lieutenant general and professor at Teikyo University. "It is probably the peak of the muscle-flexing now. As November approaches, it will shift to more low-key activities, that way, it will pave his way to the territorial talks."
Shikata doesn't think the flights are a threat to Japan. Ken Jimbo, an Asia-Pacific security expert and assistant professor at Keio University, agrees but says they still could hurt, distracting Tokyo from shifting resources from the Cold War era and the north to the south, where China has disputed Japanese sovereignty of its southern island chain.
"The need for the frequent scramble missions makes the strategic shift of Self-Defense Forces very difficult," Jimbo said. "There is no mistake that China greatly welcomes this movement of Russia, because it certainly directs Japan's focus toward the north."
The flights also benefit the U.S., Harold said, because they are sure to strain relations between Japan and Russia and move Tokyo closer in line with U.S. interests.
Experts say the Russian military machine is constrained as it lacks the potency of the Soviet Union of the ‘40s and ‘50s and can't overextend itself. Its military capabilities will only take it so far.
"I think the Japanese should continue to respond as they have -- scrambling jets and protesting to Russia," Manning said. "I don't think Russia will persist with putting on military shows in the Pacific. ... The reality is that Russia remains a declining soprano state and will only be a second-tier actor in the Pacific at large."