September 13th, 2011 DEFENSE TALK, AFP
Russia on Monday defended its strategic bombers' recent mission near Japan and accused Tokyo of trying to stir up the long-standing territorial row between the two countries.
The Russian foreign ministry confirmed that two of its air force's Tu-95MS nuclear-capable bombers had conducted exercises around the Pacific on Thursday but said Tokyo had been notified of the flights in advance.
It also stressed that the exercises were held over neutral waters and argued that "such flights are a standard practice for the armed forces of any state, including -- as far as we understand -- Japan."
Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba had on Friday accused Russia of flying the bombers around his country in a bid to put diplomatic pressure on the new Tokyo government.
The two countries are in dispute over a string of islands on the fringe of the Okhotsk Sea called the southern Kurils in Russia but also claimed by Japan.
Russia said suggestions that "Russia harboured hostile intentions against this neighbouring country... are completely groundless."
Such charges "leave us bewildered and lead us to believe that some forces in Japan are using any excuses -- even the most far-fetched -- to feed anti-Russian sentiments," the ministry statement said.
The row over the Kurils, which Soviet troops seized in the closing days of World War II in 1945, has prevented the two countries from signing a treaty to formally end the conflict and hurt bilateral trade.
The dispute flared again in November when Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to visit the archipelago.
He was quickly followed by Russian defence and other top officials who vowed to expand the country's military presence on the disputed islands and station at least one of the country's most recent warships in the area.
The dispute lost some of its momentum following the March 11 earthquake and nuclear accident in Japan, with Russia at the time promising to provide its neighbor with extra energy shipments.
But Thursday's exercises drew a stern response from Tokyo, and the Russian statement said Monday it expected more cooperation from Japan on military affairs.
The development of more friendly relations "presumes the support and expansion of contacts in the military area, including on issues of providing security in the Asia Pacific region."