Putin and the Northern Territories—A Reality Check


Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin on May 7, after a four-year hiatus, to embark on his third term as president of the Russian Federation. Putin had held the same position for eight years (2000–08), and now he is guaranteed another six. In Japan, the media have greeted Putin’s comeback with hopeful speculation on the chances for a breakthrough in the longstanding territorial dispute between the two nations that has stunted the development of their ties. But as one official from Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs put it, “The obstacles to closer bilateral relations are as formidable as ever.”

Putin's Statement

Since Russia’s presidential elections in March 2012, the Japanese media have waxed increasingly optimistic that the Putin administration will usher in a new era in bilateral ties after eight years of prickly relations under President Dmitry Medvedev. What set them off was a statement Putin made at a meeting with the top editors of leading foreign newspapers on March 1, just before the election. Artfully incorporating the jūdō terms hajime (start the match) and hikiwake (a draw), Putin conveyed a new willingness to resolve the dispute over the Northern Territories north of Hokkaidō, known in Russia as the South Kuril Islands.(*1) The Asahi Shimbun, the only Japanese newspaper represented at the meeting, quickly seized on Putin's comments, with headlines like “Putin Eager for Final Resolution of Northern Territories Dispute” and “Putin Seeks to Advance Negotiations.”

Putin’s comments on the issue were seen as significant, first because he himself raised the subject in what was obviously a prepared statement, and second because of the statement’s content.

In his remarks, Putin made three key points. First, he expressed optimism that Japan and Russia could ultimately resolve their territorial differences by “developing bilateral cooperation.” Second, he stressed the need for the relationship to evolve to the point where the resolution of matters “of a territorial nature” becomes a secondary instead of the fundamental issue. And finally, he suggested that since Moscow managed to hammer out a compromise solution to its border dispute with China after 40 years of negotiation, it should be able to resolve its dispute with Japan.

Considering the Subtext

There is no question that Putin would like to remove impediments to a more active economic relationship with Japan. For several years now the Russians have been eyeing the markets of the Asia-Pacific region, and they know that Japan holds the key to those markets in more ways than one. Putin may also be looking to strengthen ties with Japan in order to contain China (with which Russia shares the world’s second-longest border), while at the same time using demand for energy in the Japanese market to prevent China from driving down Russia’s energy export prices. As a Foreign Ministry source pointed out, Putin’s recent remarks call to mind the “expanding equilibrium” approach to Japan-Russian relations of the 1990s, where the two countries sought resolution of the territorial issue while pursuing stronger economic ties.

But this approach carries serious risks for Japan, and for that reason Putin’s recent overtures must be viewed with caution.

When Putin speaks of “developing bilateral cooperation,” he is thinking first and foremost of trade and other forms of economic exchange. His remarks reflect a desire to expand natural gas exports to Japan, Japanese technology transfers, and investment by Japanese businesses in order to fuel economic growth in Russia, coupled with the hope that the territorial dispute will recede into the background as the economic relationship evolves. The danger here is that Russia could reap the benefits of bilateral economic interaction without making any substantive concessions on the territorial issue. Indeed, a number of experts have expressed exactly this concern.

The crux of the problem is territorial sovereignty.

One reason that the Asahi Shimbun argued that Putin’s comments signified a willingness to negotiate the return the Northern Territories was his earlier statement, back in 2001, recognizing the validity of Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration of 1956, in which the Soviets agreed to “hand over to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan . . . after the conclusion of a peace treaty” (Article 9). But Hakamada Shigeki, professor emeritus at Aoyama Gakuin University, maintains that the Soviets never agreed to restore those islands to Japanese sovereignty, merely to grant the Japanese the rights of residency and economic development in the course of bilateral peace negotiations. Has Moscow been operating all this time on the assumption that the islands will remain forever part of Russia? At least one Japanese Foreign Ministry official sees that as “a very distinct possibility.”

(Originally written in Japanese on April 30, 2012)

(*1) ^ Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and the Habomai islets were seized by the Soviets at the end of World War II. The Japanese government, insisting that the Soviet occupation was illegal and that the Northern Territories are historically part of Japan, has refused to sign a formal peace treaty with Moscow unless the islands are restored to Japanese sovereignty. In the 1956 joint declaration that normalized relations between the two governments, Moscow agreed to eventually “hand over” the southernmost of the disputed islands—Shikotan and the Habomai islets—but it withdrew the promise after Japan signed the 1960 security treaty with the United States.

China Russia natural gas Suzuki Yoshikatsu Putin Northern Territories Moscow Kuril Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration Habomai Shikotan