MOSCOW, Feb 25, 2011 (AFP) - Russia announced Friday that it may send one or even two of the high-tech warships it is buying from France to help protect a chain of islands that are being bitterly claimed by Japan.
The statement from Russia's top general is likely to infuriate the Japanese government and further escalate a simmering row that flared during an unprecedented November visit to the Kurils by President Dmitry Medvedev.
The sides failed to make any progress on their historic dispute during a recent visit to Moscow by the Japanese foreign minister and have instead waged an angry war of words that appears to be becoming more heated with time.
Chief of Staff General Nikolai Makarov kept up the pressure on Friday by revealing that Russia was on the verge of sending at least one of its recently-purchased French Mistral helicopter carriers to the region.
"We do not exclude that one or possibly two Mistrals will be sent to the Pacific Fleet, including for the purpose of addressing security issues in the Kuril Islands," Makarov told the Interfax news agency.
Russia has signed a contract to purchase two Mistral helicopter carriers from France in a deal that has been criticised by some of France's NATO partners.
Moscow will also build two more Mistrals using French know-how at a later time. But Makarov stressed that Russia planned to dispatch the warships that will be built in France first.
"We are not certain yet if it will be the first helicopter carrier or the second," said Makarov.
The warships' sale has also been strongly condemned by Georgia -- a nation that waged a five-day war with Russia in 2008 and which feared that the Mistrals may be used to cut it off from access to the Black Sea.
The wind-swept Pacific archipelago -- which is still known as the Northern Territories in Japan -- was claimed by the Soviet army in the dying days of World War II.
The dispute has prevented both the signature of a Russian-Japanese peace treaty formally ending World War II hostilities and kept Japanese investments to a minimum in Russia's underdeveloped Far East.
Tokyo says its claim on the southernmost four islands is backed by the fact that the Soviet Union never signed a 1951 peace treaty formally establishing post-war borders in the Pacific.
But the Kremlin's top foreign policy adviser said earlier this month that the islands' status "will not be subject to any review -- either today or tomorrow".
Russia's Mistral announcement comes less than a month after Medvedev vowed to step up his country's defence of the island chain in a statement that was scoffed at as meaningless in Tokyo.
The four islands are currently dotted with five Russian garrisons whose creaking defences include outdated tanks and aging patrol boats.
Russia's current plan involves slimming its Kurils presence to two garrisons while at the same time supplying them with advanced short-range missile systems that could potentially shoot down approaching Japanese craft.
"Our proposals will involve partially reducing group numbers while at the same time raising their battle-readiness through new weapons systems," Makarov said.
A spokesman for the Japanese foreign minister said during the February 11 talks in Moscow that a Russian decision to send Mistrals to the Kurils would be treated as a hostile act.
"We are against any steps that can escalate the situations," Japanese foreign ministry spokesman Satoru Sato told reporters at the time.