Russia and the Asia-Pacific Region

Andrey Gubin: Too Northern territories. Is there still a chance for Russian – Japanese territorial issue resolution?

July 23, 2021
During a press briefing at the Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum on 5 June, Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed his readiness to discuss a peace treaty with Japan. He highlighted that both Moscow and Tokyo share strategic interests and recent amendments to Russia’s constitution would not impede cooperation. Actually Putin publicly made such statement for the first time that might be assessed positively and dissolve some doubts and speculations on Moscow’s withdrawal from negotiation process. It even looks progressive comparing to his 2019 words in Vladivostok that the Peace Treaty process had serious impediments due to Japan’s commitments to the United States. In his turn Japanese Prime-Minister Yoshihide Suga has several times expressed his willingness to develop ties with Russia and conclude a Peace Treaty.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has assured recently that overall peace treaty with Japan is strongly desired, but notwithstanding Tokyo’s protests Moscow would continue its economic and military activity on the islands.

It seems there are still critical misunderstandings between two neighbors.

U.S. President Joe Biden in January 2021, during a phone call with Suga, reassured him that Washington would undoubtedly fulfill all the commitments due to Article 5 of the 1960 U.S. – Japan Security Treaty. He asserted on military assistance in case of any ‘third party’ infringement on territories and waters Washington recognized ‘under the administration of Japan’. Certainly the American President kept in mind the Senkaku Islands not the Kurils. Despite this there are still ideas within Russian ruling elites that Washington can meddle and support Tokyo’s territorial claims on the ‘Northern Territories’. Actually American officials never hinted on that. The only sign of their attitude can be found in acknowledging everybody who had born on Southern Kurils as “Japanese citizens’ in its green-card lottery regulations. All of these obviously witness on a lack of trust and transparency between Moscow and Tokyo.

The Japanese leadership explains the vital importance of strengthening alliance with Washington by the existential threat from the DPRK and China. Thus Japan is gradually building up its forces focusing to gaining more capability, flexibility and lethality. Strike capacity would be introduced by new weapon such as F-35s (including based on light carriers) and long-range naval cruise missiles for destroyers and submarines. Both ASW and BMD potentials have been enhanced in collaboration with American allies. The possibility of American INF deployment on its facilities in Japan also matters. Due to direct military stand-off logic, Japan’s lean to military might is undoubtedly perceived in Russia within a context of its confrontation with the U.S.A. as Washington would reckon on more powerful and assertive ally to change status quo in North-East Asia in more favorable way.

Analysts assume Russia affected by the Soviet Cold War experience still fears threshold military infrastructure to be erected on ‘Northern Territories’ after transfer. Even hypothetical deployment of Japanese or U.S. radars, communication and surveillance facilities and missiles is extremely unpleasant and challenging for Moscow. Since Tokyo so far won’t guarantee non-militarized status of Habomai and Shikotan islands after signing a Peace Treaty and such uncertainty makes Moscow to show muscles on Kuril archipelago (including deployment of new anti-ship and air-defense missiles, renovation of troops etc) that in turn affects Tokyo. The Japanese side expressed special concern on deployment of Russian S-300V4 (Grant) system able to hit aircrafts and missiles in 350 km distance (above Chitose base, for instance). Anti-ship Bastion (Stooge) also is quite formidable with its range of 600 km. The strengthening of the Russian military in the Pacific even incites Japanese politicians to warn the United States on possible ‘Pear-Harbor style’ surprise attack on its bases. As seen such hype is hardly contributes to regional security and can cause a panic or nationalistic outbreak among civilians.

Moscow understands that in case of the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan islands the strategic environment in the area will deteriorate and turn more favorable for Japan and the United States. For instance, Shpanberg Strait is the only one here available for large ship to pass safely and Shikotan itself is a good landmark for ships and planes. As the Lessser Kurils (Shikotan and the Habomais) are located behind larger Kunashir and lined with Hokkaido, radars, anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles there might grant A2AD (anti access area denial) abilities and limit Russian military might there. Considering the constant deployment of Northern Army on Hokkaido, military facilities on Habomai and especially Shikotan islands will add value to JSDF as well as to American control of sea and air zones. A militarized ‘Northern Territories’ will substantially complement potential INF (both cruise and ballistic missiles) potentially deployed in Japan, serve as a frontier for combined air and naval strike groups and buffer against counter-attacks.

Furthermore, some Russian officials sotto voce hint that even tenuous grant to Japan will lead to ample pressure from NATO members on the Western border (e.g. in Crimea) as they can construe this as Moscow’s infirmity.

There are several opinions within Japanese expert and business environment that Russian leadership is unfairly interested only in developing trade and investment cooperation with Japan neglecting giving something adequate. It can be partially true as Japan has demonstrated a good dynamic in this sphere in recent years and offers promising technological, logistic and infrastructure projects. Affected with all the COVID-19 mess Japan stays the 11th largest Russian trade partner (2020 results) with trade volume of $12 billion (22,6 % drop to 2019), foreign direct investment swings around $450 million. Nevertheless Japanese delegates are always welcomed to economic and investment forums in Vladivostok, Sochi and Saint-Petersburg and still remain enthusiastic on developing cooperation.

Japanese academics proposed to utilize amelioration of bilateral relation and adopt any kind of a Peace Treaty to ease off confrontation with Beijing pretending to be Moscow’s good friend. Particularly, Ambassador to Moscow Toyohisa Kozuki believes ‘Eight Points’ plan presented in 2016 at Sochi Investment Forum to be still relevant and promising considering its assistance to prospect Peace Treaty. Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs repeatedly imagines joint exploitation and economic activity on and around Southern Kurils after COVID-19 lockdown dissolves (former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made this experimental offer in 2011 as such ideas circulate since 1990s).

Moscow appreciates and welcomes Tokyo’s efforts for a final resolution of territorial issue by diplomatic means no matter how much time and will would it take. For instance, Putin and Abe met 27 times in different formats and enjoyed personal chemistry between them. Most tangible achievement was reached at November 2018 meeting in Singapore when parties claimed the Peace Treaty would be elaborated on a basis on 1956 Declaration. For Russia it means that Tokyo automatically lift claims on Kunashir and Iturup islands however this never became official Japanese policy.

Notwithstanding all the leverage for bilateral ties, Kremlin was really upset by Yoshihide Suga February 2021 statement on all four claimed islands qualification using ‘some other documents’ provisions. Certainly he alluded Yeltsin-era 1993 Tokyo Declaration on Russian–Japanese Relations where all four islands were irrationally mentioned. Naturally that document became possible only due to weakness of Russian diplomacy which was under illusion of thaw in its relations with the West. Though Abe toned down rhetoric in 2019, Suga’s administration resurrected tougher stance on all the ‘Northern Territories’.

According to the Russian position, demanding all four islands again backing on 1993 document lead to hopeless illusions and drastically slows down specific negotiations. Moreover some officials confidentially share their fears that Japanese Cabinet is trying to equalize ‘Northern territories issue’ to Senkaku dispute with China. In this regard the next question – could American security guarantees be expanded to Japanese claims on all four South Kuril islands? It’s known that the U.S. guarantee would only be extended to the islands if they were under Japanese administration. Pessimistically Moscow suspects the worst case – 1960 Treaty potentially can be changed or detailed to affect Russia and China if current confrontation continues. The factual difference between the ‘Northern Territories’ and the Senkaku islands for today is that latter ones are administered by Japan and thus covered by alliance commitments. But the gap between ‘under administration’ and ‘under sovereignty’ is quite subtle that’s why deviations in Tokyo position are so sensitive and provocative for Moscow.

In a nutshell, there are still no progress in Kuril issue but the context is new. Rising U.S.-Russia, U.S.-China and Japan-China tensions affects badly security environment in North East Asia. Moscow confirmed recent constitutional amendments wouldn’t impede Peace Treaty negotiations but the prospect document stumbled in multiple peculiarities. Reaching non-military status of Southern Kurils or establishing joint development area become ghostlike until tensions subside. The Soviet Politburo is alleged to have first proposed the idea of non-military use of the Southern Kurils in the 1970s, but contemporary Russia scarcely can afford withdrawal of all the military troops and facilities from there so it’s chimerical to demand welcoming peaceful gestures from Tokyo.

With China meticulously tracking the negotiation process and sensitively reacting on all the historical legacy issues in Asia, Russian-Japanese negotiations grow even more complex. That’s why Russian experts consider bilateral talks with Japan to be truly bilateral without any even slight influence of ‘third parties’ (meaning U.S. and China, first of all). Notably Moscow’s concession would inevitably have consequences for the PRC, like discouraging Beijing in East China Sea.

The next important event to assess chances of signing Russia–Japan Peace Treaty might be the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok this September where President Putin is expected to attend. From the Japanese side Prime-Minister Suga or his predecessor Abe as an unofficial representative (and having a huge experience of dialogue with President Putin) would be invited. The main thing here is a political will of both parties those should be ready go beyond the clichés. It can be difficult for Tokyo to acknowledge that territories won’t be transferred immediately after signing a Peace Treaty and delimitation of a new border is hardly possible. Explaining this to the Japanese voters seems to be even more complicated task. But the ideas of non-military use and joint development are not so utopist. Thence there’s a long way to reconcile, disseminate both fears and concerns, however it’s not a dead-end so far.

The piece is an uncut version of the East Asia Forum publication "The Kuril islands roadlock on a Russia-Japan Peace Treaty".

Andrey Gubin, Ph.D., associate professor at the Oriental Studies Institute, Far Eastern Federal University, in Vladivostok.

He also worked at Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Russian Institute for Strategic Studies.

He tweets at @AndreyGubin4

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