The Debate

How the Kuril Islands Are Testing Shinzo Abe’s Statesmanship

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The Debate

How the Kuril Islands Are Testing Shinzo Abe’s Statesmanship

The recent Russia-Japan summit could be best described as embarrassment for Abe and a major coup for Putin.

How the Kuril Islands Are Testing Shinzo Abe’s Statesmanship
Credit: Office of the President of Russia

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been warned. The odds of Vladimir Putin returning the “Northern Territories” to the Japanese were close to nil. The four islands – Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan, and Habomai – are at the center of a territorial dispute between the Japanese, who believe they were illegally annexed in 1945, and the Russians, who claim it was a punishment for Japanese aggression in the World War II.

For 70-odd years the Japanese tried – and failed – to recover the islands. But as Putin arrived in Japan last week, there was still a glimmer of hope: what if Abe succeeded where generations of politicians had failed?

There was no miracle. Instead, what happened at the summit could be best described as embarrassment for Abe and a major coup for Putin, who pocketed some 80 economic agreements, which could bring the Russians – mainly companies controlled by Putin’s cronies – an estimated $2.5 billion.

For long-term observers of Russo-Japanese relations, Abe’s misadventures are a throwback to the past. Abe is following in the footsteps of an earlier generation of LDP policymakers, including his own father, the late foreign minister Shintaro Abe, former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, and one-time LDP kingmaker Ichiro Ozawa.

There is one thing that Abe shares with the LDP majors of his father’s generation: he, like they, aspires to be seen not merely as a politician but as a statesman. This means seeing the big picture. Above all, it means engaging Russia to trump up Japan’s global role and stress its independence from Washington’s preferences.

But there is a catch. Public opinion wants the islands. Without progress on the “Northern Territories” even the most spirited statesmanship could end up badly for Abe, no less than for his illustrious predecessors.

Abe knows that. He would not have been courting Putin for months unless he half-hoped, half-expected that his friend Vladimir would relent and compromise. Was it not Putin who had famously declared his readiness to resolve the dispute on the basis of what judokas call hikiwake – a draw?

Abe had two options, both tested in the 1980s. The first was to bribe the Russians. The early advocate of this option was Ozawa Ichiro, one of Japan’s most powerful politicians. In January 1991 Ozawa offered to buy the islands for what looked like a hefty sum of $26 billion.

All the Russians had to do was to hand over Shikotan and Habomai right away, while recognizing “potential Japanese sovereignty” over the other two islands, Iturup and Kunashir, which would then have to be returned within 10 or so years.

Ozawa’s messenger Hiroshi Kumagai, who delivered these terms to then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, wanted utmost secrecy: “If what I said today were revealed in Japan, there would be a forceful wave of angry denunciation… But Ozawa I[chiro] is prepared to act… he has taken everything into account and is confident that he can suppress any resistance.”

In March 1991, Ozawa turned up in Moscow, pressing Gorbachev to make concessions and offering credits in return. The Soviet leader was incensed: “That is not a conversation which we can have with you. … The approach: ‘you give—I give’ is entirely unacceptable not only between Japan and the Soviet Union, but in general terms as well.”

Ozawa had to leave empty-handed. Where did he err? Former Prime Minister Nakasone told me that the problem was Ozawa’s arrogance: he behaved like a trader.

Nakasone’s approach was more sophisticated. He called the Tokyo-Moscow relationship an “equation with many variables,” meaning that there had to be more than the four islands to this relationship.

In a remarkable proposal that recently came to light, Nakasone – who was Japanese prime minister from 1982 to 1987 but retained influence beyond his term – offered Moscow a package solution, which included the deployment of Soviet troops to the Middle East. The timing was crucial: this was during the lead-up to the First Gulf War, and Nakasone thought that the West had to cater to Gorbachev’s global ambitions.

Of course, money was also on the table: Nakasone’s proposal included the payment of $20-30 billion for the islands. In the end, he was as much a trader as Ozawa – only he wanted to give the Soviets the international respect that he correctly guessed they so craved.

Nakasone’s proposal, like Ozawa’s desperate bid to buy the islands, produced no results.

In retrospect, Gorbachev’s refusal to surrender the islands is remarkable. The Soviets needed the money. Gorbachev went hat-in-hand from one Western capital to another asking for credits. And yet here were the Japanese at the height of their economic confidence, promising billions and billions of dollars. And – in Nakasone’s case at least – the money was suitably packaged in wrappings of national grandeur. What happened?

For one thing, there were economic reasons. The seas adjacent to the “northern territories” supported then – as they support now – commercial fishing, one of the drivers of local economy.

Second, then, as now, there were strategic concerns. The Russian General Staff – deeply hostile to territorial deals – concluded in 1992 that giving up islands would effectively undermine Russia’s defense capabilities. The Americans would operate with impunity the Sea of Okhotsk while Russia would lose its ability to bomb U.S. aircraft carriers parked east of the Tsugaru Strait.

These were important issues. But for Gorbachev they were technicalities. What really mattered was public opinion. It was Gorbachev who unleashed democratic reforms. Now he had to heed the nationalist sentiment, especially when Gorbachev’s rival Boris Yeltsin loudly touted his credentials as protector of Russian sovereignty.

Surrendering territory – even two islands, never mind four – was politically unacceptable. Ozawa just didn’t get it. Nakasone didn’t get it. They were not alone. The entire Japanese political elite harbored illusions about Gorbachev’s willingness to part with the “Northern Territories.”

Many of these illusions are in place 25 years later. Does Abe share them? If he didn’t, would he waste his political capital befriending Putin?

If anything, today’s illusions rest on weaker ground than in the 1980s. Russia is better off economically than it was 25 years ago. True, Western sanctions have taken their toll, and one of Putin’s goals was to get Abe to rethink Japan’s involvement in this collective Western enterprise. But the Russians are far from desperate.

The Japanese have staked their hopes on Putin’s domestic popularity, which makes it easier to give away territory. But his popularity rests on his ability to defend his nationalist credentials. “I will not offend anyone if I say that I love Russia more [than Japan],” Putin said in a recent interview.

Tellingly, Putin’s fierce critic and long-time leading opposition figure Aleksei Navalny was prompt to declare that “no one will ever return the Kurils to Japan.” Navalny, who recently announced his intention to run for president in 2018, knows what Yeltsin knew in 1991: nothing plays as well with the Russian electorate as the nationalist card.

Putin knows this, too. He won’t be enticed: not by investment, not by Tokyo’s lifting of the sanctions regime, not even if Abe recognized Putin’s right to send forces to the Middle East. Anyway, unlike Gorbachev, Putin has already sent forces to the Middle East.

Today, the geopolitical situation in Northeast Asia favors Russia. Moscow’s close relations with China are in contrast with tense Sino-Japanese relations, characterized not just by a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands but also by intensifying regional rivalry. Trump’s lukewarm views on the future of the U.S.-Japanese alliance further bolster Putin’s confidence. If anyone’s, it’s now the Japanese turn to be flexible and stop trying to tie everything back to the “Northern Territories.”

Abe’s endorsement of plans for investment in the Southern Kurils – a departure from precedent – shows a softening of the Japanese position. Critics argue this will make it harder for Japan to regain the islands. Abe says in his defense that he is merely trying to build up trust. Once Russia and Japan trust each other, they’ll come to terms on the islands.

Or will they?

When in March 1991 Ozawa pressed the Soviet leader to give the date for the return the “Northern Territories,” Gorbachev took the long view. “Here history must take care of itself. Perhaps it is very close, and perhaps far away.”

“Well,” Ozawa retorted, “are we to wait 50 to 100 years?”

“I think that life will make that clear,” Gorbachev said.

If there is one thing that life has made clear, it is that Russia has no intention of ever returning the “Northern Territories.” If it had not occurred to Abe until now, then Putin’s visit dispersed doubts.

What now? Will Abe simply cut his losses and distance himself from Putin? Or will he continue to build bridges to the Russians knowing that the territorial dispute cannot and will not be resolved?

If he does the latter, he, like Ozawa and Nakasone in their times, will have to cope with domestic critics. Some LDP policymakers are already distancing themselves from what they see as Abe’s dangerous illusions. Whether Abe perseveres is the test of his statesmanship. For real statesmanship requires not just solving equations but also recognizing that some equations are not meant to be solved.

Sergey Radchenko is Professor in International Relations at Cardiff University and Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.