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By John Helmer, Moscow

In Russian, it’s called шило в жопе; literally, a bootmaker’s awl in the arse. In New York Yiddish, it’s shpilkes in tukhas, which is a bit gentler because the sharp instrument in the posterior is a needle. The meaning, in general and in the Japanese case, is a case of self-induced agitation from which acts of aggressive and misguided frustration are likely to follow.

Yesterday, the Japanese Foreign Ministry issued this announcement to the BBC: “Today, around 03:00 (06:00 GMT), military fighters belonging to Russian Federation breached our nation’s airspace above territorial waters off Rishiri island in Hokkaido.” There has been no comparable public announcement of an alleged Russian airspace penetration since 2008. This one comes a few days in advance of the visit to Washington of the new Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Forty-eight hours earlier, Japan’s Defence Minister, Itsunori Onodera, announced that on January 30 “something like fire-control radar was directed at a Japan Self-Defence Maritime escort ship in the East China Sea.” He claimed the reason for the delay between the radar signal and the public disclosure was the time required to determine that a Chinese fire-control radar had indeed locked on the Japanese vessel, and that Japanese officials, US advisors and others judged that publicity would be a good thing.

The problem with publicizing events that happen on radar screens is that they are subject to multiple and indeterminate interpretation. It’s obvious that there is now a drum-beat in Washington intended to convince the Japanese and other American allies of the need to spend vast new sums of money to fight China. The problem with this is that noone can outspend China, least of all Japan, and provocations, which appear in the planning to be cheap, may escalate into uncontrollable costs.

China’s response to the target radar lock is to say that it’s a standard patrol procedure, a warning, not a sign of hostile intent, for the Japanese to control their naval movements in disputed waters. “Japan is at the same time also sounding a combat alarm among the Chinese and Japanese public,” a semi-official Chinese newspaper editorial, responded. “The Japanese account of the episode is one-sided and ordinary people who don’t understand naval affairs will believe the two countries are very close to war.”

The combination of China with Russia makes cheap provocations foolhardy in the extreme. According to the Russian Defence Ministry response to the airspace claim, “flights of military aircraft are … carried out in strict accordance with the international rules governing airspace and do not violate the border of other states. All flights by the air forces in the region are strictly regulated by the joint command and are carried out under the supervision of air traffic control.”

The press release of the Eastern Military District puts the flights into the context of a combined forces exercise centered on the Kuril Islands to the east of Rishiri and Sakhalin involving “machine-gun and artillery units and capabilities of fighter, attack and army aviation, ships of the Pacific Fleet, as well as the personnel of the border guards stationed in the island area… Pilots and ground attack fighter aircraft made more than 25 sorties in support of combined forces units.”

Note that the Japanese wording refers to “our nation’s airspace above territorial waters”, while the Russian riposte refers to “the border of other states”. There is less than 50 nautical miles between the southernmost tip of Sakhalin, Russian territory, and the northern shore line of Rishiri, to the northwest of Hokkaido, and at its narrowest points between Sakhalin and Hokkaido La Perouse Strait is just 27 miles wide.

There is another problem for the Japanese claim. Russian territorial waters extend the standard 12 nautical miles southward into La Perouse Strait, but Japan claims only 3 nautical miles. This, the Japanese press have reported, is to allow nuclear-armed US Navy warships and submarines to transit the strait without violating Japan’s prohibition against nuclear weapons on its territory.

At the standard patrol speed of the Sukhoi-27 of between 700 and 1,000 miles per hour, the Russian fighters could not have been above the 3-mile Japanese zone for the time it takes Defence Minister Onodera to blink. The radar evidence is ambiguous at the very least.

But ambiguity in communicating is not what a man suffering from шило в жопе can tolerate.

The ambiguity in the Russian Defence Ministry operation – first, the military exercise in the area, then the overflight, and finally the public reply to Tokyo – is intended as much for the Americans hosting Prime Minister Abe, as for Japanese radar screen operators, and those who ordered a scramble of Japanese interceptors into the air well before the airspace penetration took place, if it did.

This ambiguity, like the expression шило в жопе, has a clear meaning. Lead with your head, not with your arse.

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