Between Japan and Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk, lie the Kuril Islands. Ever since 1945, when the Soviet Union took over these territories, their ownership has been hotly contested between Japan and Russia, which has even stopped the countries from signing an official peace treaty ending the second world war. But recent meetings in January between Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe suggest for the first time in over seventy years, the two countries may be closer than before to brokering an agreement. But for any deal to be made, Putin will face three main obstacles.
One of Russia’s main arguments against the return of the islands is that any negotiations over territory could set an uncomfortable precedent for the renegotiations of other lands ceded to Russia during the second world war, such as the exclave of Kaliningrad near Lithuania, and the region of Karelia – a territory on the border with Finland. But there is little indication that these other territories are interested in changing their status, and there have been no grassroots campaigns that have posed a risk to the Kremlin's control. Russia has also renegotiated the status of some of its territory in the past – in 2005 it resolved a long-standing border dispute with China, by returning an admittedly very small part of the Sino-Russia border to Chinese control, the Tarabarov and Bolshoi Ussuriisky Islands. While the geopolitical environment at the time was different, it nevertheless indicated that Russia is sometimes prepared to compromise, as long as it does not damage its strategic or economic interests.
A second issue for Putin would be the domestic reception to the negotiations, and potential unpopularity of territorial handovers. Following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea - which was well-received in Russia – the idea of returning territory appears contradictory, and the Kuril Islands are viewed in Russia as land won fairly in combat. But while the Western media and some Russian outlets have warned against a public backlash against negotiating, there's no evidence of it so far. Reports suggest that only a few hundred people attended protests in Moscow against the negotiations, and only 100 protested in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk – the capital of the province that governs the islands.
If this was a litmus test for public reception to a deal, then it has demonstrated that the islands feature much less prominently on the public agenda than the authorities thought. Moreover, there are many ways that Russian authorities could put a positive spin on a handover, by framing it as a decision that will officially conclude hostilities between Japan and Russia, reinforcing Putin’s image as a peacemaker and guarantor of stability. As in the handover of territory to China, Russia would demand an economic quid pro quo in exchange for the islets, in this case a guarantee of significant Japanese investment in places like the underfunded Russian Far East, improving local transport infrastructure or increasing job opportunities in the region.
Putin’s third obstacle is that the Kurils are an important strategic military outpost for Russia, which is wary of Japan’s security treaty with the US. Russia is concerned that granting Japan ownership of some of the smaller islets would allow the US to construct either a military base or move missile defence systems there, presenting a serious security threat. The islands form a chain along the outer edges of the Sea of Okhotsk and could be a strategic tool for Japan to allow (or deny) Russia’s Pacific Fleet and its submarine-launched ballistic missiles access to the Pacific Ocean.
But Abe appears keen to alleviate Russia’s concerns, and promised in a bilateral Summit with Putin in Singapore late last year that the US would not put troops on the disputed islands. This was reinforced by recent comments from the US which has said that it has no intention of putting the Aegis weapons system on the islands.
In Japan, there may also be room for compromise. Ahead of upcoming Japanese elections, Abe has reiterated that the territorial dispute with Russia is a foreign policy priority, and recent news suggests that he and Foreign Minister Kono could be prepared to deviate from a long-held policy position that all four southern-most islands must be returned to Japan at once. This could see the return of the two smaller islands, with later negotiations over the larger two islands once a peace treaty is signed with Russia.
The Northern Territories is a sensitive issue for the Japanese public, who maintain that the Russian military forced Japanese residents off the territory, followed by their occupation of the four southernmost islands. But the public’s view may be changing. According to a November 2018 public opinion survey, 46 per cent of Japanese respondents supported an initial return of the two islands - which has been the basis of Abe and Putin's negotiations since November. There are also indications that some conservative hardliners in Japan are prepared to aid the government’s efforts on a peace treaty. The organisers of an annual February rally in Tokyo that calls for the return of the islands have toned down their language to avoid escalating tensions with Moscow, a signal that the public response to any negotiated deal may not be as strong as previously thought.
When Putin and Abe meet again in June on the sidelines of the G20, they are likely to focus their efforts on the 1956 declaration – where two smaller islands would be returned to Japan first, but only after an official peace treaty is signed. Russia is insistent that Japan first recognise Russia’s sovereignty over the territory as part of the outcome of the war. When Putin in September 2018 offered to immediately sign a treaty without any preconditions attached, Japan rejected it on the grounds that signing it would implicitly force it to give up its claims to the islands.
Notwithstanding these issues, Putin and Abe’s attempts to lay the groundwork for a public reaction to a deal may indicate that they are closer to some form of agreement than ever, with both sides able to tell their public that they have won.