Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe arrived in Moscow for another summit with President Vladimir Putin, on January 22. Abe and Putin have been meeting regularly during the last year in an attempt to drastically improve relations. Both Moscow and Tokyo continue to express hope a long-awaited peace treaty to formally end World War II may be finally signed, resolving among other problems the territorial issue of the southern Kurile Islands. Russia has controlled these islands as part of its national territory since August 1945 (then as the Soviet Union); but Japan never gave up its claim on them. Most recently, Japanese officials, including Abe, have been expressing optimism that the southern Kuriles territorial issue may soon be resolved, and the peace treaty—signed (see EDM, January 14, 2019).
Putin has previously stated Russia could accept as the basis of a permanent solution the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration that formally ended the state of war and established trade and diplomatic relations. The 1956 Joint Declaration was ratified by the parliament in Tokyo and the Supreme Soviet in Moscow that same year, elevating the document’s official status to a binding treaty. In accordance with the Declaration, Moscow promised to hand over to Japan a smaller part of the disputed territories—Shikotan Island and the uninhabited Habomai Islets off the northern coast of Hokkaido once an official peace treaty is signed. Of course, this clause of the 1956 agreement was never realized. Indeed, in 1960, the Soviet government cited the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan (first signed in 1954) as an impediment and refused to hand over any territory until all US military bases were withdrawn from Japan. With no peace treaty ever reached, the entire territorial question has thus been deadlocked to this day (Mofa.go.jp, accessed January 24, 2019). And at present, the Russian foreign ministry insists the Soviet demand that the US military withdraw from Japan is still valid (Militarynews.ru, December 13, 2018).
Tokyo has for decades been demanding that Moscow return all of the southern Kurile Islands, including Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai, as a prerequisite to a bilateral peace treaty; for Japan, the so-called “two-island solution,” involving only Shikotan and Habomai, is not enough. Meanwhile, post-Soviet Russian leaders, and Putin in particular, seem to have wedded themselves to the two-island solution. Yet, even this apparent concession may have been mostly based on the assumption that Tokyo will always demand all four islands, thus removing the prospect of ever actually having to surrender any territory. The decision by Abe to suddenly embrace the two-island solution, therefore, came as an unwelcome surprise for Moscow and caused a bit of a panic in the Russian foreign ministry. As such, Russian diplomats and officials began a major backpedaling operation. While Putin remained silent, other officials harshly criticized Tokyo for publicly implying Russia is ready to make any territorial concessions or “trade its sovereign territory.” Public protests were officially allowed in Moscow and in the Russian Far East, castigating the transfer of any territory to Japan. At the same time, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov demanded that Japan fully recognize Russian sovereignty over all the Kurile Islands as a result of WWII. According to Lavrov, a full surrender of territorial demands by Japan is a prerequisite to successful peace talks. Moscow’s top diplomat also angrily denounced as totally unacceptable any Japanese assertions that a future peace treaty between Russian and Japan “could form the basis of a regional grouping to contain China” (Kommersant, January 15, 2019).
Despite this flurry of negative news coming from Russia in the run-up to Abe’s visit, both Moscow and Tokyo seem to be genuinely interested in an overall improvement of relations. Russia wants Japan to become a source of investment and technological transfers to help develop the Far East and the Kuriles. Even more importantly, Moscow today, as in 1956, when it initially agreed to the two-island solution, wants to weaken as much as possible Tokyo’s close alliance with Washington.
The Russian military has a special stake in the Kurile issue. The Kurile Islands chain, including Kunashir and Iturup, is seen as a strategically vital asset, necessary for controlling access to the Sea of Okhotsk. Russian strategic nuclear ballistic missile–carrying submarines, like the newest Borei-class, use this sea as a safe haven (a bastion) from which they can shoot off their nuclear missiles at North America. Moscow considers the Sea of Okhotsk to be its “internal waters,” to which it may restrict foreign access at will—although this does not conform with international treaties on free passage through the high seas. Fears abound in Moscow that any concessions on Russian sovereignty over the Kurile Islands could throw the Sea of Okhotsk wide open to US and allied intervention. Russia’s Borei-class submarines are based in eastern Kamchatka, at the Vilyuchinsk naval base; however, they deploy on patrol not into the open ocean, as their US Ohio-class counterparts, but into the Sea of Okhotsk, which is considered better protected than the northern Barents Sea (gazeta.ru, November 19, 2018).
For Tokyo, the southern Kuriles’ sovereignty issue does not carry much military/strategic importance per se: It is primarily symbolic, emotionally and politically. Japan’s main pragmatic strategic intent seems to be aimed at weakening Russian ties with China by resolving the territorial issue, signing a peace treaty and actively engaging Russia economically and politically. Abe’s latest talks with Putin in Moscow did not result in any breakthroughs on the Kurile problem (Kommersant, January 23, 2019). Yet, the summit did not end in disaster, as could have been expected based on all the pre-summit anti-Japanese rhetoric coming from the Russian side. The Kuriles are not the key issue—China and the US are much more important. Both Putin and Abe agreed to continue to work on improving relations and build up trade despite zero progress on the disputed Kurile Islands (Interfax, January 23, 2019).
Of course, Moscow does not seem interested in becoming part of any anti-Beijing coalition, as Tokyo may hope. And Japan, in turn, does not seem prepared to seriously undermine its long-term alliance with the US, as Russia might desire. Nonetheless, times change, and both Putin and Abe seem to be trying to play a long game. Washington has been dealing with allies harshly recently, and Beijing is becoming increasingly assertive; so anything may happen.