A hot springs summit might solve the 70-year dispute over an isolated string of islands that Russian and Japanese nationalists both claim as their own.
If all goes according to plan, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will slip into a steaming bath next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a hot spring in Abe’s hometown of Nagato, which faces Russia across the Sea of Japan. Abe’s goal in hosting Putin at a traditional onsen, as such hot spring baths are known, is nothing less than making history — to persuade the Russian leader to finally sign a peace treaty that would formally settle World War II. This deal has eluded Russian and Japanese leaders many times since their first failed attempt in 1956, always foundering on a dispute over a string of islands that run within miles of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and were seized by the Red Army in the last days of that war.
For Abe, this onsen summit is both personal and strategic. He has invested an unprecedented amount of political capital and personal time building a rapport with Putin, holding more than a dozen meetings with the Russian leader since Abe took office some four years ago. His foreign and economic ministers have been shuttling back and forth to Russia to lay the groundwork for the summit, making a final visit this past weekend.
Reportedly, Abe yearns to fulfill the dream of his father, Shintaro Abe, also a leading conservative politician for more than three decades going back to the late 1950s. In the 1980s, when he was foreign minister, the elder Abe spent years forging ties with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in hopes that a peace deal would make him prime minister. His son also wants to drive a geopolitical wedge between Russia and China and assert Japan’s ability to forge its own foreign policy beyond the boundaries of the alliance with the United States.
Putin also has much at stake at the hot springs. He hopes to get Japan to break ranks with the West’s post-Crimea sanctions regime, attract a flow of Japanese investment, especially into the dilapidated Russian Far East, and, not incidentally, send a small message to Beijing that Russia has other benefactors in Asia.
Not in the bath, but bubbling beneath the surface, is a third actor in this drama: the newly elected U.S. president, Donald Trump. His seemingly benign view of Putin gives Abe much greater leeway to forge a settlement that Washington has actively blocked in the past, going back to the abortive talks in 1956. But Trump’s deal-making attitude may have a double-edged effect. If Putin has reason to believe that Western unity on Russian sanctions will soon crack on its own, he has less incentive to be conciliatory with Abe in the form of territorial concessions.
It could come down to that hot spring bath — and whether Putin and Abe enter it truly intending to strike a deal.
To understand this moment, you must first put yourself on the fog-shrouded island of Kunashir. Along with the islands of Iturup, Shikotan, and the Habomai group, this is territory claimed by both countries. For Russia, these are the “Southern Kurils,” a part of the Kuril island chain once taken by imperial Japan and “liberated” during World War II. Japan gained control of the islands in an 1855 treaty and expanded its hold in the region to include the southern half of Sakhalin as a result of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. When World War II started, some 17,000 Japanese lived on the islands.
A red stone monument on Kunahsir pays tribute to the Red Army soldiers who fell in those final days of the war. Today, Russian border troops are stationed on the islands, which form a picket fence along one side of the Sea of Okhotsk, a bastion for Russian ballistic missile submarines. Hokkaido is visible across a narrow channel.
But for many Japanese, that channel doesn’t mark the boundary of their territory. The Russian-controlled islands, for them, are the “Northern Territories,” Japanese lands that the Soviets illegally seized. The failure to resolve this dispute has left the two countries, more than 70 years later, without a peace treaty to formally end their war.
If the islands are of great strategic significance, it was hardly evident during a visit to Kunashir in 1991 just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The dreary port town of Yuzhno-Kurilsk was then home to just 7,000 fishermen and their families, bringing crab, salmon, and other seafood from the rich waters around the islands to a run-down canning factory. Aircraft landed on a strip surfaced in corrugated metal sheets, an airport originally built under Japanese rule, and visitors traveled on packed earth roads. Visitors to this remote corner of the Russian Empire were — and remain — rare, and the islanders privately complained about Moscow’s neglect.
In those days, the islanders were mainly interested in attracting Japanese tourists and investors and spent their evenings peering eagerly into the strange world of late-night Japanese television shows with scantily clad women — then an exciting novelty amid the tedium of Soviet programming. In recent years, the Russian government has made a show of interest in the islands, sending senior leaders and announcing new investment in housing and defense facilities. But the total population has not changed much — there are reportedly some 19,000 people on all four islands, including Kunashir — and the region remains underdeveloped.
As during the perestroika era, Russians have dangled a bargain on the territorial issue in exchange for an influx of Japanese investment. The reference point for a deal is a 1956 agreement in which the Japanese government accepted the position that the return of the two smaller islands — Shikotan and the uninhabited Habomai islets — would be sufficient to conclude a peace treaty.
The last serious negotiation effort took place in 2000-2001, early in Putin’s rule. According to Kazuhiko Togo, who headed the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s negotiating team in 2000, the Japanese side pushed the idea of delayed sovereignty — suggesting that the Japanese would regain control of the two larger islands at an undetermined future point. The Russians rejected that idea, but they did put back on the table the possibility of returning to the 1956 offer of the two smaller islands. Since then, Japanese and Russians have talked about a “two plus alpha” deal, with “alpha” meaning something beyond the 1956 terms but not necessarily the entire territory. The quid pro quo always has involved Japanese investment in Russia. When Putin, a judo aficionado, returned to the presidency in 2012, after serving one term as prime minister, he famously declared that he was prepared to accept a hikiwake, a judo term for a draw — and a seeming reference to the territorial offer from the previous decade.
Abe also returned to power as prime minister in 2012, after a brief, failed stint in 2006-2007. He has a well-deserved reputation as the standard-bearer of conservative nationalists, for whom returning the islands is a potent symbol of the restoration of pride and dignity lost at the end of the war.
Abe immediately embarked on a concerted campaign to woo Putin, responding to his talk of a “draw.” In April 2013, Abe brought a large economic delegation to Moscow, and in February 2014, he was pointedly among the few world leaders to attend the Sochi Olympics and sit by Putin’s side. The efforts foundered after Russia’s seizure of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine — Japan formally joined ranks with the West in imposing sanctions on Russia (though the Japanese measures were much softer than others). But Abe returned to the suitor’s role this year, heading to Sochi in May for a visit that included a closed-door meeting without aides.
For Japan, Russia in itself is no longer a direct security threat, observes Tokyo-based professor James Brown, who has closely studied the Russo-Japanese relationship. “However, a quasi-alliance between Russia and China is a strategic concern for Japan, especially if it is accompanied by a reduced U.S. commitment to East Asia,” says Brown. The goal is not to form close ties with Moscow but rather to prevent it from being drawn totally into Beijing’s aims in the region. Japanese officials have continued to insist that they will accept nothing less than the return of all the islands. But, says Togo, the former Japanese diplomat, “now there is a new strategic logic for Japan — a response to the rise of China. Abe understands this logic.” A territorial deal “will force China to take Japan more seriously,” adds Togo, who is among the most prominent advocates of a compromise.
The U.S. election opened more space for a possible deal. Abe believed that he could use the possibility of Japan making a de facto break from the Western sanctions regime as leverage for a better deal, Japanese analysts say. The election of Trump would seem to offer an even greater opportunity, with a distracting transition and an administration friendly to Putin.
But in recent weeks, at least on an official level, there has been an effort to dampen expectations. “It is widely believed in Japan that Putin simply wants to wait and see how Trump approaches Moscow after coming to office, and that’s why he lost his appetite to craft a deal with Tokyo for the time being,” says Junji Tachino, a veteran foreign-policy writer at the leading Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun. “If Trump moves to fix the relationship with Moscow, then Putin’s motivation to use Japan as a potential crack in the sanctions regime will diminish.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sounded a pessimistic note after the final pre-summit talks with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, in Moscow on Saturday. “It’s not easy to bridge the gap in the principal positions of both sides,” Lavrov said. By the time Kishida had returned home, even Abe’s optimism seemed deflated. “This is not an issue that can be resolved in just one meeting,” Abe told Japanese officials on Monday.
In the run-up to the summit, Russia made its inflexible stance on the territorial issue clear. At the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Putin told Bloomberg that Russia does not “trade territories.” In late November, Russian armed forces moved anti-ship missiles onto the Kurils, a demonstrative step that drew rebukes from Tokyo. In Moscow, the scales are weighted heavily against compromise: For the Russian elite, “there’s not a clear answer to why Russia needs Japan,” says Alexander Panov, a former Russian ambassador to Japan, who notes that Putin is personally more inclined toward a deal than his advisors.
Russian analysts say the only possible formula lies in the 1956 agreements. But even if Abe were to concede to accepting the two smaller islands (a step few Russians expect), Russia still may not budge. “The biggest intrigue is what Russia would do if Japan agrees to the ’56 conditions,” says Dmitry Streltsov of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “It would be a moment of truth.”
Even if a deal can be struck, it may be hard to sell to the Russian public. The islands have symbolic weight as part of the country’s victory in the “Great Patriotic War” (as Russia calls World War II), a sacred pillar of national identity that is central to Putin’s ideology. Hard-liners argue that the islands’ rich fishing grounds are too economically valuable to give up and that handing over any of the territory would threaten the Sea of Okhotsk’s use as a staging ground for Russian nuclear submarines. Plus, argues Anatoly Koshkin of Moscow’s Oriental University, a hawkish opponent of compromise: “No one can promise that American military infrastructure won’t appear on the islands.”
The optics also present a significant obstacle for Putin. Despite viewing Japan positively, an overwhelming 78 percent of Russians are against giving the islands to Japan, while only 7 percent favor doing so, according to a May survey by the Levada Center, an independent pollster. Seventy-one percent was also against a compromise deal involving the transfer of the two smaller islands. A concentrated propaganda campaign on state television could help shift views, notes Streltsov. But even then, it would be a tough sell for a leader who has staked his authority on being the protector of the Russian people. “Especially after Crimea, Putin has an image as the collector of Russian lands,” says Koshkin.
Putin may have been more willing to take that risk when he met Abe in Sochi in May and faced a stagnating economy, a surprisingly resilient sanctions regime, and the prospect of a hostile Hillary Clinton administration. But seven months later, he is looking less like the pariah of world affairs and more like the vanguard of ascendant populist and nationalist movements across the globe.
France’s presidential elections next year will feature a roster of Moscow-friendly candidates open to lifting sanctions. Trump’s praise for Putin, while no guarantee of better relations once he takes office, at the very least offers Moscow a tantalizing opportunity. Now Abe is the one worrying about his relationship with Washington, as evidenced by his recent short-notice visit to the president-elect’s gilded tower in New York.
Abe will face his own nationalist backlash if he concedes too much to Putin. “Accepting a deal that could have been had in 1956 would be tantamount to recognizing that the last 60 years of efforts had been entirely meaningless,” says Brown, the Tokyo-based professor. “A Japanese leader adopting this brave stance would be ravaged by the right-wing and much of the press.”
Even without an immediate breakthrough on the island dispute, both sides will be keen to demonstrate progress. Turning the tide on trade — down 30 percent in dollar terms in 2015 after the oil price collapse and another 28 percent through September of this year — is the obvious place to start. Panov, the former ambassador, expects some 10 deals to be signed at the summit. Japan has already made a string of early overtures, with the state-run Japan Bank for International Cooperation announcing a planned $211 million loan to a major liquefied natural gas project in the northern Yamal region led by Russia’s Novatek. Two major Japanese banks are also reportedly discussing an $845 million loan package with Russian state-owned gas giant Gazprom, and the prospect of a pipeline project from Russia’s Sakhalin to Tokyo has resurfaced. “Both sides used to talk about [the islands] because there was no other agenda,” says Igor Dyachenko, the executive director of the Russian-Japanese Business Council. “Now business is forming a positive agenda.”
With both Putin and Abe eyeing terms that could extend well past 2020, there is plenty of time for a slow courtship. Abe hopes his gestures, and his yen, will eventually earn Putin’s trust. He has taken care to craft his economic proposals to address Russian needs beyond traditional energy interests, including health care, urban development, industrial production, and technology. Dyachenko touts a pilot project for improving city planning and housing will launch next year in Voronezh, some 290 miles south of Moscow. Putin will certainly not turn away the investment or the geopolitical returns. “Putin is in no rush,” says Alexander Gabuev, the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Russia in the Asia-Pacific program. “He thinks he can use the Japanese fear of China.” The onsen may prove to be merely a prelude. Perhaps next year Putin will summon Abe for a summit in the banya.
Photo credit: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images