Disputed islands

By Nina Bachkatov & Andrew Wilson

Once again, hopes for a solution to the disputed Kurils Islands during a Russia-Japan meeting did not materialise as public opinions are still not ready to accept a compromise. On 22 January, in Moscow, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and Russian president Vladimir Putin tried to solve the last unsettled row of WWII. The meeting failed to do so, but participants expressed a mutual desire to continue economic and cultural cooperation.The failure is another sign that there is more at stake that the ownership of four small islands lost in the Okhotsk Sea. They were seized by the Soviet Union during the final days of WWII, but Japan always claimed its territorial rights on the Kuril islands. In consequence, the two countries never signed a peace treaty despite years of diplomatic efforts and a succession of so-called ‘steps in the right direction” proclaimed after bilateral meetings.

After this January Moscow summit, the two leaders came out of more than 3 hours of discussions to announce that they had agreed to speed up peace treaty talks; and that a bilateral meeting at foreign ministers’ level in February would pave the way for a final agreement around a roadmap to solve the dispute during the G20 summit in Osaka in June. This is quite convoluted and far distant from the hopes raised ahead of the summit.

The reason is simple: differences of expectations and of interests despite a sincere will to end a row that reduce the scope of bilateral cooperation at a time when Moscow is seeking to assert itself as an eurasiatic power and Japan is concerned by Chinese growing regional influence.

The level of expectations was mostly raised by the Japanese prime minister driven by political personal motives. Russians on the contrary were more cautious, arguing that final negotiations were only in their initial stage – another sign that Russia is more interested in the process of negotiations than in a definitive solution.

Moscow is not in a hurry to conclude a final agreement as long as developments in this part of the world are unclear. At the moment, the strategic long-term interests of Russia in Asia and the Pacific region are not clear hence the difference of motivation between Russia and Japan.

On the top of that, Moscow does not forget that others actors are indirectly involved – mainly the U.S. and China. Russian analysts believe that, with or without Trump, Washington will continue to project itself as a Pacific great power to contain China as it has done on the European continent to contain Russia.

If Japan recovers the four, even only two, islands it does not require much imagination to fear that the American could install missiles and radars on the territory of an ally. The move would repeat at Russian eastern borders what it has done on the European theater. It will be presented as directed against the Chinese threat, not Russia. But it will be close to its borders, in strategic waters. Moreover, Russia does not consider China as a regional threat, contrary to Japan and the US.

In any case, Vladimir Putin is not ready for another confrontation with public opinion for the sake of a peace treaty with Japan when his popularity is still affected by the unpopular pension’s reforms. On the eve of the Japan-Russia summit, the patriotic fever that the Kremlin has been feeding for years took an unexpected twist when thousands of people demonstrated in Moscow, not at the call of nationalist rightist parties but from the left, communists and members of the Left Front of Sergei Udaltsov. For them, any cession of territory is an act of treason.

This is shared by 77% of the Russians who, according to a poll by VTsIOM, oppose giving the Kuril Islands to Japan; 14% said they would favour the transfer of the islands.

No wonder that after his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Vladimir Putin said that any deal to end the territorial row with Japan would need public backing. In the meantime, economic cooperation continues what is after all what both value most.

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