Russia Won’t Budge an Inch on Islands Japan Claims

Putin will never give ground on territorial issues, but Abe can still warm up relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspect Russian Army's and Naval military exercises in Pacific Ocean not far from the isle of Sakhalin, also claimed by Japan,  on July 16, 2013.  (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu inspect Russian Army's and Naval military exercises in Pacific Ocean not far from the isle of Sakhalin, also claimed by Japan, on July 16, 2013. (ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images)

In late July, Japan and Russia hosted a “2+2” ministerial meeting in Moscow—involving ministers of foreign affairs and defense from both sides. But this was only the third time such as meeting has been held since the mechanism was launched in 2013, despite Japanese enthusiasm for improving relations. Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, alongside continuous efforts to destabilize Eastern Ukraine, effectively cut off the momentum of the bilateral relationship.

At that time, Japan was reluctantly forced to impose sanctions on Russia and stand in unity with other members of the G-7 when Moscow was suspended from the G-8. In response, Moscow poured cold water on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempts to improve relations with Russia. Abe was keen to find a chance to resolve the decades-old territorial dispute over the southern Kuril Islands, referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan but under Russian control since the end of World War II—and to potentially disrupt, or at least complicate, the growing strategic ties between Russia and China.

The support for the 2+2 meeting was one of the few real takeaways from Abe’s three-day visit to Russia this past May. Japan had been hesitant to resume the dialogue due to lack of progress on the territorial row. Abe also has had to manage the optics of enhancing strategic engagement with Moscow at the same time as Russia’s destabilizing activities are causing great consternation among and diplomatic isolation from Japan’s G-7 partners.

This was an especially challenging issue for Japan to manage in its relations with the United States during the Obama administration—which was livid at Russian actions in the Ukraine, even before election interference issues surfaced. The Trump administration’s mercurial approach to Russia, alongside its more general lack of regard for the rules-based order, has provided Abe with some wiggle room to engage with Moscow without the fear of reproach from its key ally. But, while Washington has vacillated recently on Russia, Tokyo has received criticism from other G-7 partners—especially the United Kingdom—after offering only a meek reaction to Russia’s involvement in the Skripal poisoning attack in Salisbury earlier this year.

Abe is extremely keen to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the territorial issue, which he has prioritized, alongside the resolution of the abduction issue with North Korea, as key areas to resolve during his tenure. Abe also has a personal history with the issue and witnessed his father—former Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe—make dogged, but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to resolve the row during the 1980s. Moscow has controlled the four disputed islands (Etorofu, Kunashiri, Habomai, and Shikotan) since the Soviet Union seized them at the end of World War II. Since that point, Russia has made efforts to strengthen its presence on the isles through settlement and the development of military bases. Every Japanese prime minister since then has been under pressure to resolve the issue, and now Abe is trying again, hoping that his sustained engagement with Putin will make the difference. Abe has now met with Putin on more than 20 occasions since he took office in late 2012—this is his second stint in office, after a run from 2006 to 2007, with Putin as his counterpart.

But despite Abe’s wooing, Russia is giving no new indication that it is willing to meet Japan’s conditions—no matter how creative the Japanese have been in recent years—to resolve the territorial row. Instead, the two sides have had to agree on much lower-hanging fruit such as working toward joint economic development on the four disputed islands. On this front, Abe and Putin agreed this past May to dispatch a joint experts’ group, with members from both the public and private sectors, to the isles with an aim at producing some recommendation on potential joint activities.

Despite these small positive moves, on the more sensitive issue of sovereignty, however, both sides remain far apart on any potential deal. Tokyo continues to insist that it wants all four islands returned, while Moscow appears unwilling to budge an inch on the return of territory, resulting in a stalemate that continues to hold up the signing of a formal peace treaty to end hostilities from World War II. Putin has been keeping Abe on the line by not entirely dismissing a potential deal and has insisted that a mutual resolution is possible but would take time.

This has prompted Japan’s leaders to informally float a range of proposals and compromises. The most commonly discussed resolutions revolve around the return of the Shikotan and Habomai islets—only 7 percent of the total territory of the southern Kurils—and some form of joint administration or development of the larger islands. But despite some Japanese flexibility on the issues, sovereignty concerns and territorial administration approaches continue to be unpalatable to Russia.

Moscow certainly would like to improve bilateral relations with Japan and welcomes greater investment from Japanese companies, especially as relationships with Europe and the United States continue to freeze. But the bedrock nationalism of the Russian public makes it difficult to imagine a trade of territory—especially territory taken in the Great Patriotic War—in return for merely economic incentives. Meanwhile, Japan continues to have sanctions in place on Russia resulting from its actions in Ukraine and has riled Moscow through its decision to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defense system in northern Japan to defend against North Korean missile threats. Moreover, Japanese multinational companies—which are being pushed to further these economic plans through joint ventures and investment in the Russian Far East—are hesitant to invest their money in Russia. This has created a sense of frustration in Japan, where progress is seen as incremental at best.

Trying to bolster economic ties with Moscow—as evidenced by Japan’s eight-point economic plan—is a new formulation of a carrot that Tokyo has long tried to dangle in hopes that it can induce Moscow into a closer partnership, premised on a deal on the Northern Territories and a peace treaty. In theory, this could also help Japan, which is energy-strapped and overly reliant on the Middle East for its energy supply. Japan’s stagnant nuclear power industry only magnifies these concerns and highlights the need to look at opportunities with Russia.

But the intractability of the territorial row may not be a problem for Abe so long as he keeps putting in effort. The most important factor in Abe’s long-term engagement with Russia is wedging Japan into the middle of the Russia-China relationship. While bolstering energy and investment opportunities have some appeal, the most important motivation for Abe is strategic: Increasing ties with Russia could—theoretically—serve as a hedge against China’s assertiveness in the region by putting some doubt in Moscow’s approach to dealing with Beijing on security matters, such as sending ships to patrol with the Chinese navy.

Tokyo harbors no illusion—or desire—that Russia will become a strategic partner. The areas of convergence are minimal, and the 2+2 dialogue has been more a sign of good intentions than actual results. Despite this, Abe essentially sees engaging with Russia as low-risk, even with little rewards thus far, and will look for any dividend that may weaken the growing China-Russia strategic relationship. The 2+2 between Tokyo and Moscow thus could, theoretically, have value if Russia’s actions and cooperation with China become constrained, even a little bit. Clearly Moscow will still hedge, as it always does. But from Abe’s perspective, sowing doubt in Russia about the cost-benefit analysis of siding too heavily with China, and causing some unease in Beijing about the Russians’ reliability, is worth a few meetings.

J. Berkshire Miller is a senior visiting fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo. He is also a senior fellow on East Asia with the Asian Forum Japan, a senior fellow at the EastWest Institute, and a distinguished fellow with the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada.