How Russia Tries to Intimidate Japan

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How Russia Tries to Intimidate Japan

Moscow is stepping up its military presence on the disputed Kuril Islands.

How Russia Tries to Intimidate Japan
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Dmitry Medvedev

Russia plans to massively invest in military and civilian infrastructure projects on the Kuril islands, TASS reports quoting Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

“We’re restoring both the civilian and defense infrastructure of the Kurils,” he said this Thursday at a news conference where he also announced a visit to the islands located in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Northwest Pacific.

“I am planning to go there and have a look how matters stand there. And I invite the others,” Medvedev told members of his cabinet. He already visited the disputed islands –  known in Japanese as the Shikotan, Kunashiri, Etorofu and the Habomai islets – once before in 2010 becoming the first incumbent Russian president to do so.

The Soviet Union seized the islands at the end of the Second World War and by 1949 had expelled all 17,000 Japanese residents. Under the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty Tokyo renounced “all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands,” however, the Soviet Union never signed the peace treaty and Japan refused to concede that the four disputed islands where in fact part of the Kuril chain.

Interestingly, Japan’s recently published defense white paper reiterates Tokyo’s claims to the islands: “The territorial issue over our sovereign territory of the Northern Territories and Takeshima still remains unresolved.” In an earlier article for The Diplomat, J. Berkshire Miller summarized both sides’ legal claims to the territories (See: “Asia’s Other Islands Spat…Between Japan and Russia”):

Tokyo claims that the sovereignty of the Northern Territories (referred to as Southern Kurils by Russia) has never been debatable and that the four disputed islands have been part of Japan since the early 19th century. This is confirmed, according to Japan, by— among other treaties— the Shimoda Treaty of 1855 and the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905 at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese war. For its part, Russia pays little heed to Japan’s claims on the islands, instead pointing to a number of international treaties—including the Yalta Agreement (1945) and Potsdam Declaration (1945)— as proof of its sovereignty. Russia also emphasizes that the 1951 San Francisco Treaty serves as legal evidence that Japan acknowledged Russian sovereignty over the islands, a claim Tokyo vehemently denies.

Japan has also repeatedly rejected a Russian offer to settle the dispute with the return of the two smallest territories of the Habomai chain and Shikotan since they only constitute 7 percent of the land in question. The conflict is further fueled by potential offshore reserves of oil and gas, as well as rich fishing grounds.

Around 20,000 Russians now live on the islands. Back in June, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered a quicker build-up of military facilities on the contested territories.

And while attempting to make it sound like any other domestic trip to Russia’s Far East Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has taken in the previous months to evaluate whether a region should be eligible to receive aid from a Russian federal infrastructure improvement program, the prime minister, by stating the preeminence of the Russian Armed Forces on the islands, vicariously acknowledged that the Kuril islands are a special case.

According to Medvedev “the Armed Forces, and the Defense Ministry of Russia are dealing not only with the military but also with the civilian component” on the Kuril Islands.”It is necessary to join efforts, all the more so as the islands performed and will continue performing not only the usual function but also the function of protecting our frontiers. That is why, special attention is paid to the units of the Russian Armed Forces present there,” he emphasized.

“We can consider the issue of creating advanced development territories in the Kurils, of course, depending on what projects surface. The purpose of the new program is to improve the living conditions on the islands, as much as possible, in order to attract people to the region, to ensure those who already live there with jobs, and provide all the necessary social infrastructure such as kindergartens, schools, medical facilities,” he added.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry has announced its intentions to organize a visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan by the end of the year in order to resolve the dispute. However, chances for a quick resolution appear to be slim.