It's Time to Solve the Kuril Islands Dispute

July 5, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: RussiaJapanChinaKuril IslandsWorld War II

It's Time to Solve the Kuril Islands Dispute

The territorial dispute over the islands, referred to as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, has been a toxic influence on Russian-Japanese bilateral relations ever since the end of World War II. What is really holding back progress?


Another reason was growing nationalism in Japan. The Japanese government is often accused of being inconsistent in denouncing its military past, oftentimes at the expense of healthy relations with its partners in East Asia. Certain anxious episodes of wartime history are understated, glossed over, or simply covered up. As Russian diplomat Vitaly Vorobyov argues, a dominant narrative in Japanese postwar policymaking, including cultural diplomacy, is the victimization of Japan at the hands of the rest of the world. Territorial disputes, including the one with Russia, fit well in this victimization framework and have become a national symbol of unfair treatment by the winners of the war. This explains why Japan thinks that “returning” all the isles would restore justice in the world order and help the country overcome its “defeated country inferiority complex”—something unbefitting of the world’s third-largest economy.

For Russia, as a successor to the Soviet Union, ceding the territories would mean the opposite of justice. It would be a “revision of the results of World War 2”—a potentially dangerous practice from the perspective of Moscow. It could lead to serious problems not only with Japan, but also elsewhere in the world. For instance, in Eastern Europe, many parts of current Russian territory (Kaliningrad oblast, which used to be Eastern Prussia, along with some former parts of Estonia, Latvia, and Finland) were added to the Soviet Union and later Russia in line with the postwar arrangements. This is deeply rooted in the minds of both Japanese and Russian leaders, but the concerns become especially apparent during times of mistrust. Such times never become a fertile ground for proactive cooperation, making negotiations last for decades, as happened in the Sino-Soviet case.


AT PRESENT, Russia seems to be ready for a compromise. Its official position is to hold a dialogue based on the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. The Sino-Russian model shows that specific border arrangements can be negotiable, depending on the circumstances, but one thing is clear: nobody gets all or nothing. This means that Moscow might agree to the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan under certain conditions, one of which would be that this transfer would be the final settlement. Japan would then recognize Russia’s sovereignty over the remainder of the disputed territory without attempting to further negotiate it. Other concerns mentioned by Russia—such as Japan’s alliance with the United States, the possibility of a U.S. military base being built on the transferred islands, and Japanese sanctions against Russia—are generally negotiable and can be overcome.

Japan’s position, however, suggests little willingness to compromise: Tokyo demands that Moscow recognizes Japanese sovereignty over all four islands, transfer two to Japan immediately, and continue negotiations on the remaining two. This position has already resulted in failure on several occasions, with the most recent being in December 2016 at the Putin-Abe summit in Yamaguchi, Japan.

More recently though it seems that the general approach under Abe has shifted slightly, and his statement in Osaka during a meeting with Putin in June 2019 is another indication of that. Tokyo now seems more inclined to support Moscow’s approach in calling for broad bilateral cooperation to precede the resolution of the territorial dispute, creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and making the involved parties more amenable to reaching an agreement. This position was clearly formulated by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in December 2019, when he said that any agreements should be “supported and accepted by the people and parliaments of Russia and Japan,” and that the path to a final settlement “lies through efforts to improve relations, bring them to a qualitatively new level, and achieve the comprehensive development of Russian-Japanese ties in all areas, including the economy, investment, the humanitarian economy, security, and international positions.”

Such an approach also enabled Russia to resolve its territorial issues with China, and according to some experts, might influence other border dispute resolutions in the region, such as the Sino-Indian one. This has already led to significant growth in bilateral trade and broadened political dialogue between Moscow and Tokyo. The two countries’ leaders meet several times each year to foster political dialogue in all spheres, including security.

This is still rather far from the ideal, but the overall trend is encouraging, as is the willingness of the two current leaders to overcome the issue. Russia’s turn to the East, its interest in Asia and Japan, and its wish to avoid excessive dependency on China as a partner, along with Japan’s desire for a more independent position on the international arena and its fears of growing China, are some of the new tendencies that could bring the two nations closer together.

Olga Puzanova is a lecturer and researcher at the International Laboratory on World Order Studies and the New Regionalism at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. 

The research for this article was supported by a grant of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs of the National Research University Higher School of Economics in 2020.

Image: Reuters.