Will Imperialist-Minded Putin Return the Kuriles to Japan?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 166

(Source: Nikkei Asian Review)

Speaking on the sidelines of this year’s East Asia Summit (November 14–15), in Singapore, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe agreed to step up negotiations on a bilateral peace treaty based on the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Declaration. At their previous meeting, just two months earlier, they also touched on this topic (RIA Novosti, November 14). The readout of the Putin-Abe talks in Singapore prompted many observers to speculate that Russia may be ready to return the disputed Kurile Islands (or at least two of them) back to Japan.

Even the vague notion that Russia is considering returning these islands fundamentally contradicts Putin’s deliberately constructed imperialist image as a “unifier of the Russian lands” (see EDM, March 19, 2014; March 25, 2014). Throughout the nearly two decades of his rule, there has been only one historical exception to that stance—in 2004, Putin handed over to “friendly” China one and a half islands (with a total area of 337 square kilometers) on the Amur River. But even then, this relinquishing of Russian territory was officially explained away as a need to clarify control over the riverine channel (Lenta.ru, October 21, 2004).

In the case of the four disputed Southern Kurile Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories), however, the issue is much bigger and more acute. Unlike China, Japan has much more consistently been viewed as a historical adversary by Russian authorities. And it is interesting to recall that the first Russian revolution, of 1905, largely broke out as a result of the Russian Empire’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–1905. Meanwhile, the Kuriles, which the Soviet Union occupied during World War II, bring up highly emotional historical memories in Moscow hearkening back to the “Great Patriotic War.” Moreover, over the past decade or so, Russia has undertaken an active militarization of the Far East, including the islands claimed by Tokyo (see EDM, October 28, 2015).

Assumptions about the return of the Kuriles to Japan have already raised cries of concern in the Russian media. One author declared that the possible loss of the islands would create a “hole in the ocean [through which threats could reach Russia proper]” (Svpressa.ru, November 17).

As a result, Russian officials have sought to calm worried compatriots following the Singapore meeting. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, stated that there can be no “separate deal” on the transfer of the islands. Whereas, foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova noted that Moscow and Tokyo are engaged in a long negotiation process and no specific agreements have been reached yet (Eadaily.com, November 22).

In a recent piece for Ej.ru, independent military expert Aleksandr Golts argues that Putin is not going to actually return the Kurile Islands to Japan; these negotiations and promises can last for years. According to Golts, the Russian president plans to use the ongoing talks to bring the country out of international isolation. Yet, that is only possible if there is a split in the international community itself. “Abe assured Putin that if the transfer of the Southern Kuriles takes place, no United States military bases will be located there. The Kremlin will not be satisfied with verbal promises, it will require fixing them legally. This could create a crisis in Japanese-American relations,” Golts writes (Ej.ru, November 19).

Considering the continuing momentum toward a Russian-Japanese peace treaty, Putin is attempting to play the role of a “peacemaker.” He wants to present himself as a key player in international policy and as an unrivaled negotiator both in the West and in the East. For Japan, on the other hand, the Kurile issue is such a significant and important domestic topic that Tokyo is willing to adjust its foreign policy course and become, if not an ally of Moscow, at least a close partner, as Yekaterinburg-based political scientist Fyodor Krasheninnikov emphasizes (Vedomosti, November 20).

The game Putin is playing with Japan also has interesting parallels with recent developments in a wholly different region on Russia’s periphery. In mid-November, a representative of the True Finns Party unexpectedly declared that Finland should demand the return of formerly Finnish territories (mainly in Karelia) occupied by the Soviet Union after World War II (RIA Novosti, November 21). Large political parties in Finland rarely make such claims; but perhaps this latest statement was prompted by the media discussion of the possible Kurile Islands handover.

Hypothetically, Moscow might attempt to develop similar diplomatic leverage in its talks with Helsinki. For instance, the Kremlin could offer Finland a process of protracted negotiations with promises to return the occupied territories. And although the result of such talks would be uncertain, the fact that they were occurring at all could arouse sympathy in Finnish society for “peacemaker” Putin, suddenly seen as apparently wanting to resolve a painful historical issue. But for the Kremlin, the main goal and the real result of this strategy would be to, as a quid pro quo, block Finland’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Ironically, popular sentiment in Finland for NATO membership has gradually grown over the last several years precisely due to fears of Putin’s imperialist policies.

Russian imperial policy is often presented in the guise of solving regional issues. Indeed, this was in case with Crimea, the annexation of which the Kremlin justified by a March 2014 referendum to “rectify a historical injustice” (see EDM, March 3, 2014). But it is significant that in that same year, Moscow passed a law explicitly banning the holding of such referendums on regional self-determination in the Russian Federation itself. Will the Kremlin be willing to openly ask the locals residing on the Southern Kurils what country they want to live in?