Some tough negotiations are ahead between Japan's Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin and there are fears Putin may walk away. Photo: AFP/Kirill Kudryavtsev

The latest round of Japanese-Russian negotiations over the disputed Southern Kuril islands took place this week in Moscow, ahead of next week’s summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The territorial dispute is the only obstacle preventing the two nations signing an official peace agreement to end World War II. However, given the muscular stance the Kremlin takes on territorial disputes, and given the strategic importance of the islands to Russia’s Pacific Fleet, Tokyo will face an uphill struggle to win any concessions.

This suggests that optimistic declarations by Japanese officials earlier this month, according to which a solution is finally on the horizon, were premature at best.

Abe’s promise, Putin’s resistance

In early January, Abe talked about an imminent return of the islands, vowing in front of his father’s tomb to solve the long-simmering “peace agreement” issue with Russia.

Such bold statements irritated Moscow, which reminded its eastern neighbors that an agreement is still far from being reached.

“We must work on a peace treaty professionally, without trying to distort the agreements reached at any intermediary stage and without escalating divisive unilateral rhetoric in the public space,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after meeting his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono.

According to Moscow, Japan’s claims to the islands are groundless.

“We drew our Japanese friends’ attention to the fact that sovereignty over the islands are not subject to discussion: This is territory of the Russian Federation,” said Lavrov after the first round of talks.

He defined as “unacceptable” Japanese law, which states that the islands are part of Japan’s Northern Territories. Although Putin is preparing to summit with Abe on January 22, no end to the gridlock is in sight.

A long-running dispute

The Kuril archipelago is made up of 56 islands stretching from the Russian peninsula of Kamchatka to just north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. The territorial dispute surrounds only the four southernmost islands – Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the group of islets called Habomai. All told, they have a population of about 20,000 people.

The dispute dates back to 1855, when the two nations entered negotiations to establish a clear-cut border. Japan maintained sovereignty over the Southern Kurils until it lost them to the Soviet Union, which launched a major offensive into Manchuria, northern Korea, Sakhalin and the Kurils on the final days of the war.

The scale of that shock attack was such that previously dauntless Japanese forces, which had fought to the death in Burma and the Pacific, broke and fled.

Prior to that massive attack, Moscow had confined its efforts to battling Nazi Germany and had refrained from attacking Axis Japan, under the terms of the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact.

According to the 1945 Yalta Declaration, the Soviet Union received the Kuril Islands as war booty following Japan’s capitulation. That same year, the Soviets occupied the islands. Two years later, the Japanese population was forcefully repatriated.

In 1951, however, Russia refused to sign the Treaty of San Francisco – the peace treaty between Japan and the wartime Allies – as the document made no clear mention of Russia’s sovereign rights over the Kurils.

Further diplomatic efforts were made to find an agreement and in 1956 a joint declaration was signed, according to which Russia was willing to cede two of the disputed islands, Habomai and Shikotan – which make up only 8% of the disputed territory – in exchange for a peace agreement.

But since then, all attempts to reach a peace agreement have failed. Tokyo’s stance has solidified; it now insists on the return of all four disputed islands. Complicating the issue for Russia is that Japan struck a military alliance with the US in 1960, which could potentially place US forces right on Russia’s back door.

The dispute is a deeply felt issue within Japanese society, with the majority of the population opposing a compromise with Russia. According to a recent poll, only 5% of Japanese citizens would be satisfied with getting only two islands back, which the majority sees as just a temporary solution.

According to Vladimir Nelidov, a research fellow at the Center for Japanese Studies of the Russian Academy of Science, Abe’s latest attempts to speed up negotiations could be a PR move to improve his ratings ahead of the 2019 Japanese upper house elections in July.

“Abe wants to achieve a concrete result before the elections: he wants to obtain a major concession from the Russians,” Nelidov told Asia Times. “In case the negotiations will fail, he is likely to put the blame on Moscow.”

Russia is equally unlikely to make any significant concessions, Nelidov added.

Putin draws a red line

The islands are still widely perceived as Russia’s rightful trophy for winning World Word II and according to polls, 74% of Russians are against the islands’ handover. Moreover, ceding territory is not a policy that would be in line with Russia’s neo-imperial state ideology.

In a 2016 interview, Putin stated clearly: “Russia is not bargaining with its own territories.”

Even a tiny territorial concession could be risky for the Kremlin, as it could trigger further demands concerning other territories occupied by Russia at the end of War War II, such as southern Sakhalin, also in the Far East, or the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad – formerly the East Prussian capital of Konigsberg – on the Baltic coast.

Moreover, the Kuril Islands are strategically important for the Russian Far East.

The chain controls access to the Sea of Okhotsk, where Russian ballistic-missiles submarines are located. Giving up the islands would also make access from the Sea of Okhotsk out into the Bering Sea and northern-western Pacific problematic for the Russian Pacific Fleet.

Moscow is also concerned that, if ever returned to Japan, the Kuril Islands could potentially host US forces.

These concerns were fueled by recent statements made by Abe’s political aide, according to which an agreement with Russia will help Japan and the US to deter China. Lavrov defined that statement as “outrageous,” adding that US efforts to militarize the Asia-Pacific region are a serious obstacle in ongoing negotiations with Japan.

“Considering the current condition of Russian-US relations, Tokyo’s close alliance with Washington is a major factor preventing Japan and Russia from reaching the level of mutual trust we would like to achieve,” Nelidov said.

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