A bust of Vladimir Lenin is seen in front of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in the settlement of Yuzhno-Kurilsk on the Island of Kunashir, one of four islands known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. Photo: Yuri Maltsev, Reuters

Russia has renewed its earlier hardline stance on the territorial feud with Japan over the Kuril Islands by announcing upcoming deployment of additional troops to the disputed islands.

On February 23, still known as “Army Day” in Russia, Moscow brushed aside Japanese objections against the deployment, dismissing Tokyo’s stance as irrelevant.

Japanese protests are inappropriate and are not based in international law, said Viktor Ozerov, head of the Defense and Security Committee of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament. Russia will deploy its armed forces inside its borders anywhere it is necessary, he said in televised remarks on February 23.

That date, officially Red Army Day during the Soviet era, is still a public holiday in today’s Russia, though now officially known as Defender of the Fatherland Day.

On February 22, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu told parliamentary hearings in Moscow that the ministry planned to deploy an additional army division to the Kuril Islands later this year.

Japan’s latest protest came as the second similar development in as many weeks. On February 14, Japan lodged a formal protest against Moscow’s naming of five uninhabited islands in the Kurils.

Russian media have largely backed Moscow’s latest hardline stance on the territorial feud with Japan. Pravda.ru speculated that the US “will seize the Kuril Islands immediately if Russia delivers them to Japan”.

Last year, top-level bilateral talks appeared to indicate Russia’s intention to mend fences with Japan and depart from its earlier hardline position. In December 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Japan to discuss bilateral cooperation, including possible ways of joint economic development of the Kuril Islands.

Last May, Putin met with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi and described Japan as Russia’s “important partner” in the Asia-Pacific region. After the talks, Abe mentioned a “new approach” to the territorial dispute. However, details of this new approach were not disclosed.

Yet despite the encouraging rhetoric last year both sides only agreed to continue negotiations. Putin and Abe agreed to resume meetings of their foreign and defense ministers in a so-called 2+2 format. The next meeting was due on March 18, but now it’s far from certain whether it will materialize.

In January, Abe reportedly indicated plans to visit Russia in April to discuss bilateral ties. These plans now also seem to be becoming less certain.

In recent years, attempts to organize meaningful meetings between the two leaders have been slow to materialize. Putin was due to travel to Japan in late 2015, but the visit was postponed as talks between diplomats did not make any progress on the territorial dispute.

In August 2015, Russo-Japanese political relations reached new lows after Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to the Kuril Islands despite vocal objections from Japan. The Kremlin insisted that Russia’s top officials would keep visiting the disputed Southern Kurils despite Japanese protests. Medvedev stated that Russian officials “visited, visit and will visit” the Kuril Islands and ordered cabinet members to travel to the islands more frequently.

However, in 2016 the Kremlin apparently dropped the hardline tactics. Russia’s top officials refrained from high-profile visits by to the Kuril Islands. In April, Putin argued that a compromise solution over the disputed Kuril Islands “can and will be found”.

In recent years, the “compromise solution” has remained elusive as Moscow has been refusing to discuss a return to Japan of four islands, Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai, known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan.

The Kremlin has consistently rejected Japan’s insistence that Russia return all four islands. The latest Russian dismissal of Japanese concerns appears to signal the revival of Moscow’s hardline tactics in relations with Tokyo.

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