CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Russia announced plans this week to construct a series of military garrisons on disputed islands in the western Pacific — a move sure to rile the Japanese, who had been trying to negotiate the return of the territories seized at the end of World War II.

The plans were unveiled Tuesday by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at a conference with senior military commanders and disseminated by the Russian news agency TASS. Shoigu said Russia’s special construction agency, Spetsstroi, would build 392 prefabricated structures, including child care centers, schools and hostels on the sleepy, sparsely populated islands of Iturup and Kunashir. The islands are part of what the Japanese call the Northern Territories and the Russians call the Kuril Islands.

Relations between the two nations have become strained since Japan supported sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula. As a result, Russian pilots have buzzed Japanese airspace hundreds of times, and the Russian military has held robust exercises in the region.

“This will allow for the proper accommodation of personnel and military hardware and for making it operational,” Shoigu said of the construction plans, TASS reported.

Japanese government officials said they were aware of Shoigu’s statements.

“The government of Japan always keeps a close watch over movements by Russia in the Northern Territories, however, we will not comment on every statement made by Russian ministers,” a spokesman from Japan’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.

Moscow’s actions in the Pacific come as the country remains embroiled in conflict in Europe and has recently started an air campaign in the Middle East — all of which have strained Russia’s military. The sanctions, combined with tumbling commodity prices, have caused a sharp contraction in Russia’s economy.

The Soviet Union seized the disputed islands from Japan at the tail end of World War II, and their Japanese inhabitants were expelled. Japan has disputed Russian sovereignty over four of the islands north of Hokkaido: Shikotan, Khabomai, Iturup and Kunashir. While the two countries have never signed a peace treaty formally ending hostilities, they restored diplomatic relations in 1956 and have committed to resolving the island dispute.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin several times since he retook office in 2012. Scholars believe Japan’s overtures toward their northern neighbor were designed to open negotiations over the islands.

Japan’s support of the sanctions has chilled the relationship.

In 2013, Russia held a large land and sea military exercise in Siberia and the Sea of Japan. Then last year, it held exercises on two of the disputed islands.

In addition, Japanese air force pilots have scrambled jets to counter Russian aircraft, which have buzzed its airspace nearly 1,000 times in the past three years, according to a data provided by the Japanese Joint Staff.

Scholars believe the construction on Iturup and Kunashir indicates that Russia has little interest in negotiation.

“Russian plans to expand their military footprint in the Kuril Islands reinforces the perception that a peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo is not in the offing and that some deal over splitting the disputed islands is similarly unlikely,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo.

“Putin does not seem inclined to renounce Russian claims and is instead striking a bolder stance. He has also announced plans for a significant expansion of the Russian navy, and if realized, it’s likely that its Pacific presence will be bolstered.”

Kingston’s colleague, Robert Dujarric, the director of Temple’s Institute for Contemporary Asian Studies, said that Japan might be upset over the construction, but it was unlikely Russia would have given the islands back anyway. The move, he said, is most likely just saber-rattling by Putin.

“Russia is not much of a threat to Japan or the U.S.,” Dujarric said. It appears to be primarily a “way to make noise. It’s really a nonissue.”

Shoigu said building materials have already arrived and that construction will continue throughout the winter season.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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