Last month, thousands of troops, tanks, and rocket launchers paraded through Moscow’s Red Square, marking 76 years since the end of World War II, which claimed the lives of around 24 million people across the former USSR. But, more than 7,000 kilometers to the east of the Russian capital, the Kuril Islands continue to hamper efforts to draw a line under the bloodshed and finally sign a peace treaty with Japan. Until the status of the volcanic archipelago is settled, Imperial Japan and the Soviet Union remain, technically at least, in a state of war.
Soviet troops landed on the territory in August 1945, just five days before Tokyo’s representatives signed their declaration of surrender aboard the USS Missouri. The Yalta Agreement, penned by the Allies months before the Red Army set off, had promised the archipelago to Moscow, in exchange for entering the war in the Pacific against the Axis power.
Since then, though, Japan has sought to overturn the terms of the deal, insisting that the four southernmost islands, which it refers to as its “Northern Territories,” were not actually covered by WWII-era treaties. Tokyo claims that they had not previously been considered a part of the Kurils, as described in the document, and should therefore be handed back to Japanese control.
That deadlock has for years been the thorn in the side of relations between Japan and Russia. For right-wing activists and commentators in Japan, the status of the islands is a question of national pride, and a sign that it has not fully recovered all that it lost in the wake of the war. However, that view is not universal, and only 44 percent of Japanese citizens polled in 2019 said they were in favor of any number of the islands being returned, with only one in three backing bringing all four back under their country’s control.
In Moscow, by contrast, the debate comes down to national security, given the islands lie in the strategic East Pacific, where its navy is increasingly engaged in standoffs with warships belonging to the United States and its allies. In addition, the Kuril Islands’ past role as the launch pad for a brief Japanese invasion of Russian land is undeniably a factor. A difficult diplomatic situation has since been further cemented by President Vladimir Putin’s constitutional reforms, passed after last year’s nationwide vote, which binds Moscow to preserve its territorial boundaries for eternity, ruling out the question of ever trading away part of the country.
Last week, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin made headlines by declaring that the constitutional reforms do not pose an obstacle to peace talks. “We are ready to continue negotiations,” he said during a virtual press conference. His comments sparked another round of the “will-they-or-won’t-they” type speculation that had surrounded peace efforts under Putin and former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.
Further complicating matter, the impasse has now taken on another dimension as a proxy issue that flares up and quiets down according to relations between East and West. Washington, which originally supported Soviet forces landing on the islands, has since done something of an about-turn on their status. At the end of last year, the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper uncovered that the U.S. State Department considers anyone born on Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashir, or Iturup, which Tokyo claims as its sovereign territory, to be a Japanese citizen.
That decision flies in the face of the fact that the Japanese civilian population was almost entirely expelled along with its army garrison at the end of WWII. Indeed, many of the islands’ residents belong to the ethnic Ainu population and/or are descended from Russian, Ukrainian, and Tatar workers shipped there during the communist era. However, given the fraught state of ties at present, the dispute is another convenient lever with which to apply pressure.
Now though, there are hopes both sides could be close to a deal. The Kremlin, which is the side content with the status quo, has been pushing to bury the hatchet for years. Suga Yoshihide taking office as Japan’s prime minister in September last year has handed Moscow its best chance at settling the issue in recent decades, after running out of steam with his predecessor, Abe Shinzo. Shortly after being voted into the top job, the veteran backroom dealer told journalists that he had used a call with Putin to emphasize the need to “develop Japan-Russia relations holistically, including the signing of a peace treaty.” He added that it would be wrong to “leave the territorial problem to the next generations,” insisting the two leaders should “put an end to it ourselves.”
However, earlier this year, Suga set out a tougher set of demands than Moscow might have hoped for, describing the archipelago as “under our sovereignty.” It is clear that, while neither side has given up on the hope of resolving the issue through dialogue, there is little chance they would agree to each other’s most basic terms.
At the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in June, Putin again renewed his call for a peace treaty to be signed. He rejected suggestions that the constitutional amendments prohibiting the handing over of its territories undermined the chances of talks, effectively saying that his government believes Japan could fundamentally give up its claims in the North Pacific in order to reach a deal.
Tokyo, for its part, has avoided rejecting this position out of hand. Kato Katsunobu, the Japanese chief cabinet secretary, said on Monday that officials were aware of Putin’s statement, and that “we take these words as confirmation of our readiness to continue negotiations to conclude a peace treaty.” He added that the government “plans to continue formal negotiations based on our fundamental position of solving the territorial issue.”
At its most basic level, the state of war between Russia and Japan is only a technicality – a historical oddity. The two nations, among the world’s largest economies, are important trading partners and, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism and cultural exchanges between the two were surging. That said, Moscow is understood to generally only view Japan through the lens of its relations with other nations, specifically Tokyo’s proximity to the United States and its fractured relationship with Moscow’s key partner, China. Settling the question of the Kurils, the Kremlin understands, would ensure it could no longer be a proxy for potential escalations on its eastern border.
Japan, for its part, is unlikely to give up on the islands without substantial concessions elsewhere. With willingness at the top to put bygones aside, and apparent antipathy from the general public, those trying to keep the debate alive are in a clear minority.
This piece was updated on June 10, 2021 to reflect the most recent events.