A picture taken on December 12, 2016, shows the town of Kurilsk on the island of Iturup. Soviet troops seized the Kuril Islands in 1945. Photo: AFP / Andrey Kovalenko

The Kuril Islands, or the Northern Territories as Japan likes to call them, are at the center of an uneasy relationship between Russia and Japan.

The USSR occupied the islands between August and September 1945. Since the end of World War II, the disputed territory and related issues are the primary subject of engagement between the two countries.

The contention over the ownership of the Kurils is also the main hurdle for the conclusion of World War II between the two nations. Over the decades, the diplomatic efforts by Japan have been unsuccessful in getting the islands back. 

In recent times there has been considerable cause to suggest that the Russian side has taken or has been compelled to take an icy approach to settling the Kuril Islands dispute because of public opinion.

Laws in the new constitution adopted by Russia in July 2020 criminalize any alienation of Russian territories or advocacy for territorial concessions. These laws apply equally to every part of Russia, including those with some controversy around them, such as the Kuril Islands, Crimea and Kaliningrad.

The latest opinion-poll data published by the government of Japan shows that the Japanese people have a keen understanding of the security implications and the status of the current state of relations with Russia. The numbers also sadly indicate that more than 85% of Japanese people surveyed don’t have a positive perception of Russia.

Diplomacy and economic cooperation

Both Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Russian President Vladimir Putin have repeatedly expressed their desire to maintain bilateral cooperation. However, the Russian side insists on decoupling the peace treaty from the prospect of returning the Islands to Japan, while Tokyo marches on with an optimistic approach to engaging Russia to secure the islands’ return eventually.

The pragmatic motivations for the two sides to engage on the issue is the desire for advancing their economic interests. Russia desires investment from Japanese enterprise to diversify and uplift its one-trick-pony (hydrocarbon exports) economy. Japan wishes to have unrestricted access to the waters around the island, which is one of the most lucrative commercial fishing zones in the world. 

Suga’s predecessor Shinzo Abe led a significant diplomatic effort with his approach of deriving “political leverage” and persuading Russian public opinion with his eight-point economic cooperation plan. In the end, nothing tangible came Abe’s way on the question of the Islands’ return.

Yet Suga and his administration appear to be continuing with economic cooperation as their primary persuasion tool. The only difference between the two leaders’ approach is that Abe focused on the return of only two islands, while Suga is aiming for all four. 

Russia’s focus on its Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Trans-Siberian Railway logistics has seen an equally warm response from Japan. The new rays of hope can be gauged from the Japanese ambassador to Moscow commenting that the logistics of the NSR are at least 40% more efficient than the traditionally taken Southern Sea Route via the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea to ship cargo from Japan to Europe.

A Japanese company called Hankyu Hanshin Express has already begun shipping cargo over this more efficient route. It even intends to sublet some of this shipping volume to other Japanese companies. 

It is important to note that Japan previously engaged with the USSR for using the Trans-Siberian Railway to ship cargo in the 1970s and ’80s too, but in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the cost and reliability of the route became untenable.

Japan’s cherry-picked history, Soviet follies

In terms of legal and historical high ground, neither Japan nor Russia has an impeccable case. An academic authority on Russia-Japan relations and the Kuril Islands dispute, James D J Brown, in his book Japan, Russia and their Territorial Dispute: The Northern Delusion, tears down both countries’ legal and historical arguments. 

Brown mentions the selective representation of historical facts by the Japanese side to establish the islands’ status as “inherent Japanese territory.” He also points to the Soviet Union’s folly in refusing to sign the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty, in which Japan legally ceded its right to the Kurils and concluded a peace with the signatories. 

Japan only truly integrated the four southernmost Kuril Islands of concern “around 200 years ago and in the form of colonization at the expense of the local Ainu” people, who were mistreated by the central Japanese authorities of the time, not unlike how native Americans were by the European settlers.

As Brown illustrates in his book, it is interesting to note the Nobel laureate and Russian nationalist writer Aleksandr Issayevich Solzhenitsyn’s views on the Kurils. In a telephone conversation, he declared to post-Soviet Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin, “I have studied the whole history, beginning from the 12th century. These islands are not ours. Give them back. But for a high price!”  

Security implications and partnerships

With huge implications on the entire security picture of the Asia-Pacific region, the Kuril Islands chain is a strategically and commercially important flashpoint. The islands could serve as a forward operating base for Russian forces to project power in the Pacific. It is no coincidence that they served as the departure point for Imperial Japanese Navy ships that attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941, drawing the US into World War II.

There is also good reason to believe that if the islands ever come under Japan’s jurisdiction, they could be used to threaten the Russian Far East and the seaborne logistics supporting its economy. The threat could range from a blockade of the Tsugaru and Soya straits, which might cut off the Russian mainland from the southern Kurils, to denying the Russian Navy safe access to its bastion in the Sea of Okhotsk when transiting from the Pacific.

Japan’s primary security partner is the US, and this is an inherent cause for suspicion for Moscow. Russia goes out of its way to highlight its threat perception from the various avenues of cooperation in this relationship. This includes the canceled land-based Aegis air-defense systems and, more recently, the US plans to base precision-strike conventional missiles in Japan under the Pacific Deterrence Initiative

According to a recently updated slidedoc published by Japan’s Ministry of Defense, Russia now has a considerable number of troops, armored vehicles, and advanced air-defense systems, including an S-300V4 unit, on the Kurils and an S-400 on Sakhalin. Russia also attributes its recent military exercises on the Kurils as aimed not at Japan but for maintaining credible defensive capabilities against US forces in the region, including those stationed in Japan. 

These Russian air-defense systems would be critical to counterbalance the Japanese qualitative edge in air power with the induction of F-35 stealth fighter jets in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

In terms of its own security partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region, Russia keeps its options diverse and courts both China and India. However, because of Russia’s threat perception against the US globally, China as a fellow US adversary receives closer cooperation than India, an emergent US partner in the Indo-Pacific.

As a tactical measure, Russian and Chinese military aircraft conduct joint combat sorties over the Sea of Japan and East China Sea, clearly aimed at signaling conventional deterrence against common adversaries in the region, including Japan. 

There is a distinct possibility that Russia and China might clash over the resources and territory in the Russian Far East in the coming decades. This is one plausible but distant future scenario where Tokyo may have hope of seeing Moscow align its security interests with Japan against China. After this, a window might emerge where the return of the Kurils to Japan may be possible as Russia finds itself desperate and without any other ally to rely on.

However, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it could go either way, with the border clashes in the wake of the Sino-Soviet split and the above and beyond offer of a prospective Su-27 Flanker sale to China in the Mikhail Gorbachev era. 

The latter is a significant but ultimately anecdotal instance where the USSR gave preferential treatment to China over its objectively stauncher allies, India and the Warsaw Pact countries, which could only buy MiG-29 Fulcrums, confirming the strategic weight that China de facto commands in any geopolitical equation.

What the future holds for the Kuril Islands dispute remains to be seen, but foreseeable trends point to Japan’s optimism ultimately wavering in the medium term, and Russia and China clashing over Russia’s Far East in the long term, with a potential window emerging where Japan may have a chance to regain the islands.  

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a junior research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.