Russia tamps down the Kuril hype

(Kuril Islands & Sakhalin)

The expectations were high that 2019 would be a pivotal year in Russo-Japanese relations. President Vladimir Putin may visit Japan for the G20 summit in June and there has been speculation that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to sign a peace treaty at that time, bringing the World War II hostility between the two powers to a formal end.

Part of the reason for such wild excitement has been because Putin is a popular icon in Japan. (His topless 2019 calendar was the year’s biggest hit with Japanese shoppers, outselling all the country’s domestic celebrities.) Besides, Putin himself may have triggered the hype with his stunning remark at the podium of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok last September when he turned to Abe who was seated beside him and offered to sign a peace treaty without any precondition by the end of 2018.

The hype wasn’t allowed to peter out, since Putin and Abe met soon afterward in Singapore in November where they agreed to accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty based on the Soviet-Japanese joint declaration of 1956. (The declaration commits Russia to transferring 2 out of the four Kuril Islands – Shikotan and Habomai Islands – once a peace treaty is concluded.)

This consensus at Singapore dramatically transformed the territorial dispute over Kuril Islands, which had been so far hindering the conclusion of the peace treaty. The Japanese public opinion got electrified and demands were made that Abe should now ask Putin to return all the four islands as well.

Sensing, perhaps, that passions were rising, Putin chose to clarify shortly after the Singapore meeting with Abe that the 1956 declaration as such did not specify “on what grounds and whose sovereignty they will fall under”, suggesting that Moscow may hand over the two islands to Japan but without transfer of sovereignty.

Putin acknowledged that there have been talks with Japan about transferring Shikotan and Habomai islet groups, but denied any discussions regarding sovereign entitlement. He maintained that the sovereignty issue would be subject to future negotiations.

But Putin’s clarification only added to the confusion. Putin seemed to imply that Japan would only have the right to use the two islands while their sovereignty will continue to rest with Russia. But there are no such precedents of transfer of territory in inter-state relations.

Putin probably attempted to tamp down the excitement in Japan. In fact, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s Press Secretary also elaborated later that return to the 1956 declaration would in no way imply an automatic transfer of Russian territory to Japan. He said, “Can we say it means automatic transfer of any territories? Absolutely no.”

Japan, however, has consistently demanded “automatic transfer”. In early December, when Putin again met Abe on the sidelines of the G20 in Argentina, he probably tried to mollify Japanese opinion by saying Moscow will hand over to Japan Shikotan and Habomai Islands after a peace treaty. But then, soon afterwards, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphatically stated that accepting the legality of Russia’s control over the four disputed islands would be an indispensable first step for Japan to take.

Putin and Lavrov seemed to contradict each other. For, once Japan recognizes Russia’s control, then where is the question of it claiming any of the four islands back from Russia? But it is inconceivable that there could be dissent within the Russian camp. The ambivalence can only be seen as part of Russian strategy to drag its feet on an agreement until conditions become favorable to Russia.

Of course, there is no question of Russia allowing the Japanese to wish for Iturup and Kunashir, the two larger islands in the north Kuril chain. But Moscow suspects that in the long run, Japan will stake claims for them, too. Then, there is the overarching question of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security whereby Americans would have rights of military deployment on Kuril Islands.

Things are coming to a head since Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is arriving in Moscow on Monday and Abe also may be visiting Russia later this month. Quite obviously, the Japanese side is hustling Putin. Moscow finds itself in a tight spot because Putin only raised the Japanese expectations in the first instance, which are now touching ecstatic levels, whereas, Moscow has no such intentions of relinquishing the sovereignty over any of the four islands in the Kuril chain.

On Wednesday, the Japanese ambassador in Moscow was summoned to the foreign ministry and told that there has been an attempt in Japan “to artificially increase pressure around the peace treaty issue and to impose an own scenario of its resolution on the other side.” The ambassador was told categorically that any peace treaty “should be supported by the two nations and rest in full on Tokyo’s unconditional recognition of the results of World War II, including the Russian Federation’s sovereignty of the Southern Kuril Islands.”

It is highly improbable that Abe can ever accept such a formula. Why is Moscow taking such a maximalist position now? The only plausible explanation could be that in the Russian estimation, while the Putin-Abe dalliance has served its purpose to incrementally create a better climate in the relations between the two countries, the geopolitical factors at work currently, especially the deteriorating relations between Russia and the US, cannot be wished away. After all, Japan is a time-tested ally of the US and there is no likelihood of the alliance ending in a conceivable future.

On the other hand, even if there was a time when Russia would have fantasied that it could be a “balancer” in the Asia-Pacific,  that is no longer the case today. In the downstream of the showdown in Ukraine in 2014 all such notions died sudden death. Instead, what began as a “pivot” to China has in the past 4-year period assumed the nature of a quasi-alliance.

Interestingly, TASS featured an interview on Friday with a top Moscow pundit, Valery Kistanov, Director of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Far Eastern Studies, who has warned that Japanese territorial claims “can go very far” and can include in future not only the whole of Kuril Islands but also southern Sakhalin. The fact of the matter is that South Sakhalin (called Karafuto Perfecture by Japan) was ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Portsmouth (1905) by Czarist Russia following its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). In 1945, the Soviet Union occupied Karafuto and since 1951 it has been a part of the Sakhalin Oblast in Russia. A footnote maybe useful here, too: The then US President Theodore Roosevelt was actually instrumental in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Portsmouth and he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his peacemaking efforts.

Both Russia and Japan are imperial powers in modern history and they have long memories. Today, strident nationalism continues to be the hallmark of both powers. Japan is unwilling to moderate its territorial claims and Russia is not going to transfer any territory for buying a peace treaty with Japan. Nonetheless, the Putin-Abe dalliance had a greater logic insofar as it created an illusion that suited both sides for as long as it kept stark historical realities beyond the visible political horizon. Read the TASS interview with Valery Kistanov here.