When I last posted about the Kuril Islands, I discussed briefly how Shinzo Abe was trying to conclude a peace deal with Russia and retrieve some of the islands it lost in World War II, in spite of Putin occasionally harassing the Japanese with military posturing.
The disputed islands in question are a group of four islands just north of Hokkaido. Japan would like to see the two smaller, mostly uninhabited islands returned in exchange for abandoning claims to the two larger ones, which have a substantial population of Russians living on them. Abe has been aggressively pursuing the settlement of a final peace deal.
The problem is that Putin wants to militarize the islands, which is causing huge problems for any kind of final settlement:
Japan has officially logged a protest with Russia over the construction of four barracks on Etorofu and Kunashiri, two islets that are part of the disputed Southern Kurils known in Japan as the Northern Territories, located off Hokkaido in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Northwest Pacific.
The protest was made through official channels by Japanese diplomats in Moscow on December 19, according to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. TASS news agency revealed earlier this week that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) plans to move troops into the newly constructed barracks in the coming days. Furthermore, the MoD plans to proceed with the construction of facilities for armored vehicles.
The recent military buildup—Japan’s MoD estimates that Russia has over 3,500 troops stationed on the disputed islands—comes weeks before an official meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo and Russian President Vladimir Putin in January. The two leaders agreed in September at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia to step up talks to resolve this ongoing territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty.
Russia is, in my opinion, unlikely to return the islands. First of all, Putin’s support base in Russia is comprised heavily of Russian nationalists, who will be very unhappy if he gives up Russian territory. Secondly, they have been uneasy with US moves in the Pacific region for some time. For example, we have been building up our base in Guam. A more recent issue is they aren’t happy with the US sale of Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense batteries to Japan. Finally, Russia is unhappy about US military drills and exercises with our allies in the region:
Another area of concern for Moscow has been the increasing number of military exercises held by US, South Korean and the Japanese naval forces, which is “aggravated” by the growing US military presence in the Pacific region (for instance, the expanding US military potential in South Korea—see EDM, July 22, 2016).
Russia’s strategy in the region seems to be pour resources into the Kuril Islands and use them as part of a huge Pacific defense rim:
In fact an entire army corps is reportedly being deployed in the Kuriles: a division and several separate brigades, combining army, anti-aircraft and long-range anti-ship missile units. This corps must defend the entire Kurile Island chain, including the presently uninhabited northern islands—not only the southern ones claimed by Japan—against a possible enemy (US and Japan) assault (Mk.ru, February 23). The Kurile corps must deny enemy air and sea assets from penetrating the Sea of Okhotsk—thus turning this body of water into a fortress from which Russian nuclear strategic submarines based in Kamchatka may target the continental United States. The Kurile defenses are part of a larger Pacific defense rim from the Bering Strait to Vladivostok. Last August, Shoigu announced the creation of such a defensive rim, which will also include the deployment of a coastguard division on the Chukotka Peninsula, facing Alaska. Using long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, this division will be tasked with denying the US access to the Arctic through the Bering Strait (Mil.ru, August 23, 2016).
Russia is trying to condition a return of the smaller of the Kuril islands on a guarantee from Japan not to let the US use them for military purposes. This might placate the Russian nationalists enough that a deal could be made. However, there’s no guarantee Japan would accept Russian conditions on how they can use their own territory. Furthermore, accepting such conditions might weaken US security guarantees for the Senkaku Islands, a group of southern Japanese islands that China is menacing:
It is believed Washington would be reluctant to have Tokyo make the Northern Territories an exception while it guarantees protection over the Japan-controlled, China-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. If the United States ever agrees to such an agreement for the northwestern Pacific islands, Washington could drop its commitment to defend the Senkakus, analysts said.
I think that is unlikely we will see any softening of Russia’s position any time soon, no matter what Shinzo Abe does. There’s not a lot of benefit to Putin right now to give Abe what he wants and conclude a peace treaty with Japan. The two countries are too far apart on security conditions and assumptions.