Does Putin Have a Kuril Islands Plan?

Recent Features


Does Putin Have a Kuril Islands Plan?

Could a 50/50 split of disputed islands bring an end to Japan and Russia’s conflicting claims?

As a I reported this week, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russia's President Vladimir Putin enjoyed what could be described as a positive summit on Monday. Both sides seemed to commit to warmer relations and movement towards a resolution to long standing differences over key islands that have been in dispute for decades.

However, the meeting may have gone better than initial reports suggested.

Courtesy of the Japan Times:

"Russian President Vladimir Putin has told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Russia has previously settled some of its border issues by splitting the disputed areas evenly with other countries, a Japanese delegation source said.

Putin, however, did not touch directly on a long-standing territorial dispute between Russia and Japan over a group of four islands when he met with Abe in Moscow on Monday, according to the source, but the remarks may be interpreted as a potential approach that the president has in mind to resolve the row.

Putin, who is keen to settle the dispute over the Russian-controlled islands off northern Japan and sign a postwar bilateral peace treaty, has told Abe that Moscow resolved its border dispute with China in 2008 by evenly dividing the contested islands on the Amur River, the source said.

Putin also made a reference to how his country used this approach to settle its maritime border dispute with Norway, the source said Tuesday."

Clearly both Japan and Russia have strong incentives for settling this long standing row between them. Agreeing to some sort deal to end the island spat would clear the way for a formal peace treaty from their conflict in the Second World War. This, in turn, could lead the way to greater economic ties such as Japanese investment in Russia and Moscow exporting oil and natural gas to Japan.

But would some sort of 50/50 split work?

"I find the idea of drawing a line with half of land area on each side a bit awkward," explained Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The economic benefits have always been there, but it seems there is a more pressing strategic interest now. It is long overdue, frankly, and if successful, it restores a relationship that has been handicapped for over half a century."

Indeed, while a deal is still far off, Tokyo and Moscow's attempts to cement a stronger partnership could not come at a better time for either party.

Japan faces troubled relations with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands that shows no sign of being resolved in the near term. Tokyo's ties with South Korea have also been strained over their own island issues as well as past historical challenges related to Japan's World War II legacy. Tokyo also faces the constant threat presented by North Korea.

Russia on the other hand faces its own challenges in Northeast Asia. While relations with China are strong at present, coming off the heels of a recent summit, Russia surely takes a long term approach when viewing its interests in Asia. With China's economy growing rapidly and with an equally capable and evolving military, Russia's interests would be best served solving its problems with Japan should relations with China turn negative. Even though relations with Beijing are strong at present, Russia could see itself as the very junior partner in the future if China's power continues to grow — with possibly very divergent interests.

Still, it is possible that domestic politics, an unwillingness to compromise, or even some unforeseen set of circumstances could kill a possible deal. Whatever the case, the next few months should be very interesting.