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The Kuril Question: Putin’s Far Eastern Territorial Disputes

A Turbulent History

Dwarfed by the war in Ukraine, Russia’s ongoing militarization of a group of islands claimed by Japan in the Pacific has largely avoided the international limelight. Since de facto control of the islands changed hands at the end of the Second World War, the legal sovereignty of the Kuril islands has remained nebulous, sparking vigorous diplomatic exchanges between Moscow and Tokyo. As diplomatic dialogue fails, the dispute over the tiny islands has aggravated relations between the two countries, spelling trouble for the regional order of an already volatile East Asia.

Positioned in the northwestern Pacific, the Kuril Islands consist of a chain of 56 tiny islands to the South of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and to the North of Japan’s Hokkaido island. Despite that, disputes over the island in the status quo mainly revolve around solely the South Kuril Islands, composed of the Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai, and Shikotan islands. Due to the islands’ geographical position, they present tactical military considerations as well as economic advantages that neither country is willing to back down from.

At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union occupied the Kuril Islands in 1945 as part of the Yalta Agreement. Since then, the islands have remained firmly under Russian control. However, as Japan was excluded from the Yalta conference, there was not an immediate formal peace treaty between Russia and Japan, rendering territorial claims over the islands an ongoing contention. 

In 1956, Moscow and Tokyo conducted a joint declaration to normalize bilateral relations, ending their formal state of belligerency. Additionally, Russia offered to return two of the four Kuril Islands—Shikotan and Habomai—which make up only 7% of the entirety of the Kuril Islands in exchange for Japan to relinquish its claims to the other two larger islands—Etorofu and Kunashiri. The negotiations collapsed when Japan rejected the arrangement.

Adding Oil to the Fire: Recent Escalations

Expanding on the basis of the 1956 joint declaration, the latest talks resumed in 2019 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Eastern Economic Forum. However, the talks hastily ended in response to Japanese sanctions on Russia over the invasion of Ukraine, which again shattered relations.

In an attempt to defuse diplomatic tensions, Putin openly expressed willingness to deescalate the dispute last year, noting that “the absence of a peace treaty in our [Russo-Japanese] relations is absurd.” Regardless, the latest Russian polling indicates adamant domestic objection to settling the Kuril question, with more than 90% of the Kuril Islands’ Russian population expressing refusal to return the islands in a 2019 poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM). Russia’s recent constitutional revision is the nail in the coffin. Adding a clause prohibiting “[a]ctions […] directed towards the alienation of part of the territory of the Russian Federation,” Moscow has made it unconstitutional to relinquish its integral territories, extinguishing prospects of legally resolving the island dispute.

Amidst trampled Japanese hopes, the Kremlin has been stepping up its militarization of the Kuril Islands. In March, despite vocal protest from Japan, Moscow launched a massive military drill as a tour de force on the islands. This was not the first time that Moscow bolstered its military activity on the Kuril islands. Since 2015, Russia has been building military infrastructures, including barracks, bases, and airstrips, at Kuril. In 2017 and 2021, respectively, Russia deployed battalions of Bastion anti-ship missiles and S-300V4 anti-air missiles to Kuril, posing an active threat to Japanese naval presence in Hokkaido. Despite attracting protests from Tokyo, the Kremlin has made it patently clear that it is looking to establish Kuril as a permanent bridgehead at Japan’s doorstep. 

Strategic Implications of the Kuril Islands

This comes under consideration of the immense strategic military advantages that the Kuril islands yield to Russia. First, connecting Russia’s Arctic sea lanes to the Pacific, Russia’s Kuril military presence is a centerpiece of the Kremlin’s maritime doctrine. The Russian military bases at Kuril supplement Russia’s dominant naval presence—the Pacific Fleet—stationed at Vladivostok up north by serving as a springboard that enables the Kremlin to easily maneuver its warships and submarines from the Sea of Okhotsk into the Pacific. Second, the Kremlin is wary of the close military cooperation between the U.S and Japan that could introduce a potential deployment of U.S long-range missiles to the islands should Japan regain control of Kuril, directly threatening Russia’s shorelines. This is a scenario that Moscow cannot condone.

Beyond providing benefits from a military standpoint, the Kuril islands are abundant in natural resources. Possessing one of the world’s largest rare-earth element (REE) deposits of rhenium, the Kuril Islands are encircled by a thriving fishing industry as well as untapped reserves of gas and oil. Amidst the Western sanctions, these are strategic resources that a resource-hungry Moscow refuses to surrender.

Furthermore, a Russian compromise over the Kuril question would be perceived by the U.S and the West as a demonstrated sign of weakness. Yielding the Kuril Islands would trigger international attention to coerce Moscow to back down from its occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, which shares a similar history of Russian annexation as that of the Kuril Islands. Amidst Russia’s inauspicious war in Ukraine, evidence of the Kremlin threatening low-yield nuclear deployment as well refusing to withdraw from Ukraine suggests that Moscow cannot sacrifice to appear weak.

As Russo-Japanese relations rapidly deteriorate over Japan’s sanctions and its growing alliance with the U.S, negotiations over the Kuril dispute ram into a gridlock. For the time being, it seems that Russia is unwilling to surrender a territory of strategic military and economic implications, one that is also a stern concern of national pride. 

A Double-edged Sword: What the Future Holds for Kuril

However, the impasse over the Kuril question serves no good to both Moscow and Tokyo. Perceiving the threat of Russian militarization on the Kuril Islands amongst other risk factors in East Asia, Japan is looking to revise Article 9 of its pacifist constitution—a clause that has prohibited Japan’s development and use of offensive military capabilities. With the pro-revision coalition taking the majority in the Japanese Diet, Japan now has the golden chance to revise Article 9, granting Japan the right to belligerency. Should Article 9 be revised, Russia would be facing an increasingly aggressive and militarized Japan over the Kuril dispute. Miscalculation and escalation are in the cards.

To avoid conflict, the establishment of a joint economic zone at Kuril is a much needed mechanism to defuse tensions and promote bilateral cooperation. Facing Beijing’s growing footprint in East Asia, Japan has demonstrated signs of eagerness to find a new regional ally—Russia being a potential candidate. In 2016, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a new foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia, promoting economic collaboration as a means of resolving the Kuril question. This would surely benefit both parties. For Russia, strengthening economic ties with Japan means weakening Japan’s dependence on Washington, a move that would secure Russia’s power projection in the region, while yielding economic advantages amidst Russia’s domestic downturn. For Japan, the lucrative fishing market and gas and oil reserves would help alleviate the country’s resource deficiency. Moreover, Moscow and Tokyo have indicated that peaceful coexistence at Kuril is feasible. With increased Japanese investments in Russia’s Sakhalin-2 energy project on the Kuril Islands this year, Japan has demonstrated that it is willing to defy pressure from Washington to invest stakes in joint economic projects with Russia, underscoring deeper economic ties with Russia to foster bilateral relations over the Kuril dispute.

Despite progress inching forward, the Kuril question remains a ticking time bomb that could spiral into a full-fledged escalation. Amidst the growing chasm between Russia and the West and its proxy Japan, Moscow and Tokyo have to set aside their politicized differences and make concessions. As both a politically-volatile flashpoint and a nascent hub of economic collaboration, the Kuril Islands have the potential to be the determinant of either amity or animosity between Moscow and Tokyo. Against the backdrop of the world’s turbulent geopolitical landscape, only time will tell the fate of the Kuril Islands. 

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