The bilateral summit held in Moscow on 27 April, between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, improved diplomatic and economic ties between the two countries, which have suffered weak relations following the visit of Russian prime minister, Dimitri Medvedev, to the Kuril Islands. Due to the contested nature of territorial claims on the islands, Japan perceived the move as an outrage. Although relations have since improved, Japan and Russia still need to resolve the dispute of the Kuril Islands, which has been going on for more than 60 years. However, it seems unlikely that they will be able to do so any time soon, as they represent a strategic asset that Russia is unlikely to give up.
A History of the Kuril Islands
The chain of the Kuril Islands separates the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Okhotsk, and are presently part of Russia’s Sakhalin Oblast. The islands were annexed by the Soviet Union following its attack on Japan a few months before the end of the Second World War. After the war, for which Japan and the USSR had yet to sign a peace treaty, Japan made territorial claims on four of the southern Kuril Islands (Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashir and Iturup), which it considers its Northern Territories. An agreement between Japan and the USSR regarding the islands was almost reached in the 1950s, on the condition that a peace treaty for WWII be signed between the two countries before the islands were returned to Japan. However, Japan backtracked from the deal, resulting in little cooperation since then. Even today, Russia and Japan have yet to sign a formal peace treaty for WWII, 70 years after the end of the war.
However, in recent months tension between Japan and Russia regarding the question of the Kuril Islands has thawed as Japanese prime minister Abe adopted a new approach to the dispute by using the promise of greater economic ties as a lever to facilitate discussions. With the Russian economy in decline, partly due to EU-US sanctions and the departure of capital, Japanese investments could help the Russian economy recover. In exchange, Russia could give back the islands to Japan. In December 2016, Putin and a Russian delegation of ministers and businessmen were greeted in Japan by Abe to discuss a potential resolution of the dispute, along with several trade deals. Several key achievements were also met at the bilateral summit held in Moscow — most notably, Japan and Russia’s agreement to increase economic cooperation, facilitate access of the four islands to former residents, and set up a joint commission to investigate the possibility of conducting joint investment on the islands. Regardless of this progress however, it is very unlikely that Japan will ever regain its Northern Territories, since they constitute an important strategic asset for Russia.
A Key Strategic Asset for Russia
Russia is unlikely to give up on the Kuril Islands because they contain important natural resources that can provide significant revenue to mainland Russia. They are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and possess significant mineral reserves, such as rare rhenium deposits, along with suspected vast gas and oil deposits which provides Russia an economic incentive to retain these islands and thereby provide a boost to their own struggling economy.
The Kuril Islands more importantly represent a key strategic asset for Russia. They host several Russian military bases, and Moscow has invested in the military infrastructure of the islands in recent years, most notably by deploying Bal and Bastion coastal missile systems. The Russian Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, also declared in February 2017 that Russia would bolster its military force on the islands in the coming months by deploying a new army division. Furthermore, ships of Russia’s Pacific Fleet (based in Vladivostok) must pass through the chain of the Kuril Islands to reach the Pacific Ocean. When the sea freezes in the winter, ships use the strait between two of the disputed islands — the Kunashir and Iturup islands.
If the islands were returned to Japan, and the ties between the two countries seriously deteriorated, Japan could limit Russia’s power projection capabilities in the Pacific Ocean. There are even fears from Russia that the United States could station forces on the Kuril Islands if they are returned to Japan, as that would ensure security guarantees between Japan and the US. This would lead to increased militarization in the region along with greater tensions and distrust between the US and Russia. The situation could be further worsened, if NATO decides to station forces on the islands due to its long-standing history with Japan — this would surely add greater tensions to the already major political crisis going on with Russia in Eastern Europe. The latter would feel encircled by the transatlantic alliance — something it has sought to avoid since the end of the Cold War.
The Way Forward
As of today, even though diplomatic and economic relations between Moscow and Tokyo have thawed, it is doubtful that the southern Kuril Islands will be handed to Japan in the near future since Russia is unlikely to give up on a key strategic and economic asset, regardless of increased economic ties with another country. Such an act would also be in contradiction with Putin’s recent policies, such as Russian deployments in the Arctic region or the militarization of Crimea, which seek to ensure the defence and control of Russia’s external borders.
Taking these factors into account, the dispute around the Kuril Islands may develop in two ways in the coming years. First, relations between Japan and Russia could thaw further, without the dispute around the Kuril Islands ever being resolved. The islands could become a zone of joint investment, to which Japanese citizens would be granted free access, but the scope of relations between the two countries may be limited if Japan does not give up on its territorial claims. Or, Japan could renounce its territorial claims on the southern Kuril Islands. However, this would be highly improbable since it would run counter to Japan’s historical position regarding the islands, which has been constant over the last 60 years. If both countries deem it is necessary to resolve the dispute around the islands before signing a formal peace treaty for WWII, then it seems likely that such an agreement will not be signed any time soon.
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