Russia-Japan tensions flare anew over the Kurils

4 min read
A Russian tank on the Kuril Islands

Formally, Russia is not at war with Ukraine, where it claims to be conducting a so-called “special military operation.” But with Japan, given that Moscow and Tokyo never signed a peace treaty officially ending World War II, the two Asian neighbors remain technically at war.

And after Japan recently described four Kuril islands whose ownership it disputes with Moscow as “illegally occupied by Russia”, old tensions are building anew in the Pacific region.

Ever since the Soviet Union conquered the Kuril Islands in 1945, the ownership of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan Islands and the Habomai Islands has been challenged by Tokyo.

The chain of some 50 volcanic islands, stretching between the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido at the southern end and the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula in the north, has been an integral part of Russia since 1945 but Japan still sees them as its Northern Territories.

According to the latest version of the 2022 Diplomatic Bluebook, published by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Northern Territories are “islands over which Japan has sovereignty, and are an inherent part of the territory of Japan, but now are illegally occupied by Russia.”

That diplomatic assertion, however, has drawn new, hot criticism from Russia. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov recently said the islands are “inalienable territory of the Russian Federation”, while claiming Japan has become “an unfriendly country and has joined in a whole series of hostile actions towards Russia.”

“It is really very difficult to talk about the continuation of the negotiation process,” Peskov added.

Moscow and Tokyo have previously held several rounds of talks on the disputed territory, although no breakthrough has been made. After Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, Moscow-Tokyo relations have gone from bad to worse as Japan has followed the United States and European Union in imposing sanctions on Russia.

On March 21, in response, Russia announced it would withdraw from negotiations on a peace treaty with Japan.

Sergey Mironov, leader of the opposition political party A Just Russia, has upped the ante by saying, according to many experts, “Russia has all rights to Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido.”

Indeed, some Russian experts believe that Hokkaido is a “historical Russian land”, although that does not mean that the Kremlin intends to launch a “special military operation” on the island any time soon. Mironov’s statement, analysts surmise, is likely a reaction to the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s document on the Kuril Islands.

On the other hand, some Russian political analysts believe that the US is pressuring Tokyo to downgrade its relations with Moscow.

“There were great chances to continue negotiations, sign a peace deal, and develop economic cooperation between the two countries. But the situation changed dramatically after the United States once again decided to show how influential it can be,” said Dmitry Mosyakov, head of the Center for the Study of Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania, a think tank under the Russian Academy of Sciences.

There are concerns in Russia that the US plans to eventually establish naval bases on the Kuril Islands, which is allegedly why Washington is pushing Tokyo to reassert its sovereignty over the disputed territory.

According to Russian political analyst Marat Bashirov, the US is preparing Japan for a potential military confrontation against Russia, while Valery Kistanov, head of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, claims that Japan-Russia relations are now “worse than during the Cold War.”

Japan has imposed several serious sanctions against Russia. Most crucially, perhaps, Tokyo has enacted a law formally revoking Russia’s “most favored nation” (MFN) trade status. On April 22, the US ally introduced a ban on exports of around 300 goods to Russia.

At the same time, Japanese corporations Mitsui and Mitsubishi have announced plans to continue participating in the Russian Sakhalin-2 project – an integrated oil and gas development business whose four investors are Mitsubishi Corporation, Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom, Shell and Mitsui & Co.

Moreover, Japan’s anti-Russian sanctions will not affect imports of crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Russia, which suggests that Tokyo is using the same strategy against Moscow as the European Union.

The Kremlin, for its part, insists that it is trying to develop the Kuril Islands’ economy with the help of other global players, namely China and India. Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi are reportedly discussing 140 investment projects on the disputed territories where Gazprom plans to build two small-scale LNG handling and regasification facilities.

The Kuril Islands are thus of great economic importance to Russia, although it is questionable if Russia’s sanctions-hit, war-time economy will be able to muster the resources to invest in the development of the strategically important region any time soon.

The Kremlin, however, is expected to continue conducting military drills on the Kuril Islands, a clear message to Tokyo that economic pressure could be met with military might. Yet if the Russian army suffers a defeat in Ukraine, Moscow’s saber-rattling towards Tokyo will perhaps be perceived as less threatening than previously.

Russia-Japan tensions flare anew over the Kurils — Asia Times

Tony Simon

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