Is Putin Prepared to Return the Northern Territories? A Russia Specialist Examines the Prospects


Satō Masaru

Born in Tokyo in 1960. Former senior analyst in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he earned high marks from his overseas counterparts as a diplomatic intelligence specialist. After studying Russian at the British Defence School of Languages, worked in the Japanese embassy in Moscow, building a network of information channels in the Kremlin. As an author, his works include Kokka no wana (The Trap of the State) and Jikai suru teikoku (The Self-Destructing Empire).

On October 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the resort district of Sochi, appearing at the Valdai Discussion Club’s annual meeting. There he referred to his September 12 meeting with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō at an economic forum in Vladivostok, where the Japanese leader had insisted on a resolution to the question of the Northern Territories—the islands off the northeast coast of Hokkaidō occupied by Russia since the end of World War II—before a formal peace treaty could be inked, by noting that “this is possible.” We asked Satō Masaru, Russia specialist and former senior analyst at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, about the significance of this utterance.

Shedding New Light on a September Meeting

NIPPON.COM   President Putin made his comment on the possibility of a territorial resolution before the Valdai Discussion Club, which brings together academic, business, and political leaders from Russia and other countries at its conference each year.

SATŌ MASARU   That’s right. President Putin spoke at length in his appearance at this year’s conference. As part of his comments, he talked about his discussion with Prime Minister Abe in Vladivostok in September. After Putin’s speech at the Eastern Economic Forum, he and Abe went together to observe a youth jūdō competition; he went into some detail about the content of their discussion there, and the text was published in Russian on the presidential website on October 18.

In the relevant passage, Putin says: “Prime Minister Abe told me that at the present time, Japan could not accept the approach of concluding a peace treaty first. That the fundamental issues related to the territorial question needed to be cleared up first, and then we could talk about the treaty.” About this, Putin went on to say, Mozhno i tak—“This is possible.”

NIPPON.COM   In his statement in Vladivostok a month earlier, the president appeared to be calling for a peace treaty in advance of any territorial discussions, so this would appear to be a show of flexibility that bears watching.

SATŌ   Exactly. The possibility he refers to is that of clearing away the Northern Territories issue and then going on conclude a peace treaty, just as Japan has been demanding. The two countries have been discussing these things for seventy years now without being able to reach an agreement on them. Putin, unhappy at this impasse, is making an overture to Abe to try to break free from this situation.

A November Summit as the Next Step

NIPPON.COM   Putin’s Vladivostok proposal to shelve the territorial question and hammer out a peace agreement first came across as a real curve ball. Should we look at it instead as a tool he used to give the stalled process some fresh momentum, though?

SATŌ   I don’t believe it went against the spirit of the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which set forth the intent of the countries to resolve the territorial issues and conclude a peace treaty. In Sochi, Putin went on to say that while the joint Russo-Japanese economic activities taking place on the disputed islands are based on a splendid ideal, they have yet to produce much in the way of results, and that both Tokyo and Moscow should continue to display political leadership and keep the process moving forward.

NIPPON.COM   How are Japan and Russia likely to do this—to keep the negotiations moving in order to achieve a breakthrough?

SATŌ   The international conference scheduled to take place in Singapore in mid-November should be a good opportunity for the next step. Diplomats from both sides are already laying the groundwork for summit talks there. President Putin has noted on numerous occasions that the legislatures in both countries have already completed the preparations to ratify the 1956 agreement, which promises the return of the Habomai islands and Shikotan. Once a few more conditions are met, we can expect movement toward a peace treaty based on the 1956 Joint Declaration.

Compromise the Key to Further Progress

NIPPON.COM   What do you mean by “a few more conditions”?

SATŌ   The waters accompanying the Northern Territories as their exclusive fishery zones are not defined the same way today that they were in 1956, when the Joint Declaration was issued. Furthermore, if the Habomais and Shikotan come back under Japanese control, they will become subject to the Japan-US Security Treaty, leading to the possibility that American troops will be stationed there. Japan will need to clearly spell out ways to head off this potential situation in order to get Russia on board.

NIPPON.COM   And what about the other main islands in the Northern Territories, Kunashiri and Etorofu? How do you see talks moving forward on them?

SATŌ   Japan and Russia will each need to compromise with the other side in determining how to deal with the fishery zones around the islands. Once this is achieved, it can be used as a lever to bring about continued negotiations on the status of Kunashiri and Etorofu as well. If the headlines focus only on the question of whether we will see a peace treaty before the islands are returned, or whether Japan will only get two of the four main islands back, we’ll end up mired in endless debate about those issues and we won’t be able to arrive at a true solution.

The 1956 Joint Declaration, significantly, doesn’t say that Russia will “give” the islands back to Japan, or that Japan will “secure their return.” It uses more neutral language, stating that the Russians will “transfer to Japan” the islands in question. Wise diplomacy has always depended on crafty methods like this to achieve its aims.

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō observe the competition at a September 12, 2018, jūdō tournament in Vladivostok, Russia. © Jiji.)

diplomacy Russia Northern Territories