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Putin Wants Economic Cooperation With Japan But Won’t Give Back Islands

Japanese investment cannot buy back the islands.


Russia and Japan will move toward economic cooperation, but they will not move toward resolution as to who is the rightful owner of the disputed Kuril Islands.

On Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin concluded a visit to Toyko by standing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to announce about 80 business deals between their governments and Russian and Japanese companies. This will reportedly equal roughly 300 billion Japanese yen in Japanese investments, loans, and credit deals in Russia.

Additionally, Moscow and Tokyo will begin discussion of joint economic projects on the four disputed isles, located northeast of Sapporo.

But, at present, that dispute remains unresolved: Russia insists it has the right to the four islands Japan says it has occupied since World War II (which is technically still ongoing between the two nations). A 1956 declaration signed by what was then the Soviet Union, but still considered active, says that Russia will turn over two of the four islands once a peace treaty is signed. But that did not happen at this week’s summit, and the issue of the islands that Moscow claims but Tokyo insists are illegally occupied remains unresolved.

At a joint press conference Friday, Putin noted that bilateral trade between Russia and Japan has decreased in the past year. He said that’s in part because of the sanctions Japan has in place against Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea. “First,” Putin said, “we need to improve the economic relationship.”

But improving the economic relationship also comes back to the islands. Japan would want joint business on the Kurils conducted under a “special legal status.” Russia, on the other hand, wants it done under Russian law, as it says that the islands are Russian territory, a point that the Russian Embassy in the United Kingdom helpfully noted on Friday by way of a tweet.

Photo credit: Toru Yamanaka – Pool/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin