Who wants trouble, and where do they want it?
The American Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, arrived in Japan on April 5 at the same time that American officials were sending signals that the Ukraine "crisis" caused by the Russian takeover of Crimea was over. Even though the 1994 Budapest Memorandum signed by President Clinton purported to guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity, the U.S. response has been that there is no military solution (in other words: Crimea is not worth going to war over). The Budapest Memorandum did not mean what it said, American officials explained, because its commitments were "nonbinding." The memorandum is not a formal treaty.
Japan and the U.S. have a formal security treaty, which Defense Secretary Hagel emphasized publicly and privately. But Japanese officials were using the American response on Crimea to try to leverage a stronger American commitment to an even less important bit of contested real estate in the East China Sea -- the uninhabited islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Both countries claim the islands, whose status is legally ambiguous. The Chinese discovered a large natural gas field near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2006, which China and Japan have developed jointly since 2008.
Increasing Japanese militarism was expressed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in January, when he told the World Economic Forum that the world should stand up to China or risk a regional war with global economic consequences. Feeding that fear in February, U.S. intelligence officer Capt. James Farrell claimed that Chinese training exercises included practice for "a short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea." The U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, responding indirectly at the time, asking that "both sides lower the temperature and focus on diplomacy," while adding that the U.S. had no position on the dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Adding to the context leading up to Hagel's visit, the North Koreans launched some 30 short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. Japan promised to shoot down any more North Korean missiles seen as a threat to Japan. And South Korea, which also has a military security treaty with the U.S., tested a new, long-range ballistic missile that could reach almost any point in North Korea, firing it into the Yellow Sea.
Manipulating the perception of increasing tensions, the Japanese sought to maneuver the U.S. in committing itself to a military response to any attack on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands that Japan administers. Hagel reaffirmed the American commitment to protect Japan's security, without specifically including the disputed islands, reiterating the official U.S. position that it has no position.
For all their diplomatic ambiguity, Hagel's assurances annoyed the Chinese without satisfying the Japanese. Hagel travelled on to China, where he became the first foreigner to get a tour of China's newest aircraft carrier, a former Soviet vessel that the Chinese spent a decade refurbishing after buying it from Ukraine.
What none of the public officials (and little if any of the media coverage) said about the Sendaku/Diaoyu islands is that the islands are arguably located in both countries' excusive economic zones and also within their 200-mile territorial limits (the East China Sea is about 360 miles wide) as controlled by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both countries have signed. The dispute has been pending before the UN's State Oceanic Administration since December 2012, when China submitted its claim. The ocean area in dispute is about one-and-a-half times the size of Crimea.
Speaking at the NATO Transformation Seminar in Paris on April 8, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen defined the Ukraine situation through the now familiar meme of Russian troops massed on the border of Ukraine, a description of reality that is as unchallenged as it is unproven, even though it has settled into acceptance as conventional wisdom:
"We are meeting at a defining moment for the security architecture we have built together over the last decades. Events in Eastern Ukraine are of great concern. I urge Russia to step back. Any further move into Eastern Ukraine would represent a serious escalation, rather than the de-escalation that we all seek.
"We call on Russia to pull back the tens of thousands of troops it has massed on Ukraine's borders, engage in a genuine dialogue with the Ukrainian authorities, and respect its international commitments."
The first problem with the troop meme is that Ukraine's border with Russia is more than 1,200 miles long. No one is asserting that there are massed Russian troops stretching 1,200 miles from Belarus to the Black Sea, and clearly that's not what's real [if there were 40,000 troops along the entire 1,200 mile border, that would mean there were 33 troops per mile, which is pretty thin massing]. It's not clear what's real, and hasn't been since the earliest assertions of Russian troops massing.
Before the Maidan began in Kiev in the fall of 2013, the Russians were allowed by treaty to have 25,000 troops in Ukraine, all in bases in Crimea. Once Russia controlled Crimea, early reports of Russian troops in Ukraine often confused this reality with other things that may or may not have been real, such as the March 7 report that the Pentagon estimated the presence of "20,000 Russian troops in Ukraine." If true, the Russians would seem to have been under-massed by about 5,000 troops. Whatever else was true during the Crimea takeover, there were no pictures of massive Russian troop movements. Video of Russian tanks moving to Crimea on trains were, if real, showing those tanks moving unmolested through southern Ukraine, the only rail route from Russia to Crimea.
As of March 4, according to a map in the British Daily Telegraph, the standing military of Ukraine comprised little more than 150 planes and 65,000 troops. Across the border in Russia, the standing military in the western district (Moscow) included 278 planes and over 150,000 troops. The southern military district (Rostov-on-Don) had some 200 planes and 150,000 troops. In other words, before there was any "massing," the Russians already had more than 300,000 troops stationed in regions bordering Ukraine, presumably at a variety of distances from the border.
On March 12, the British Daily Mail reported a Ukraine government claim that "80,000 Russian troops were massing on its borders." The story included two maps, one of which showed four areas on the border where the Russians were reportedly massing 80,000 troops, 270 tanks, 180 armored vehicles, 90 helicopters, 140 planes, and so on, without any indication how they were divided up. The second map purported to show that Russia planned to occupy all of southern Ukraine from Kharkiv to Odessa, which wasn't fully consistent with the map showing where the troops were "massed."
That was the government in Kiev, or the Daily Mail, crying wolf. The next day, March 13, the UK Guardian reported that "Moscow has deployed 10,000 troops along its border with Ukraine," no massing, and clearly discounting the 25,000 or so in Crimea. Russia confirmed the 10,00 in "several border regions" in a training exercise that would last two weeks." The New York Times the same day reported the same story based on the same source somewhat more hysterically, under the fundamentally false headline: