Kuril Islands : Russia bares its teeth in the East

Pierre Lecornu, translated by Louise Gretschel
24 Avril 2014

It’s the butterfly effect, what happens in the West has repercussions in the East. Though Russia recently annexed Crimea from the Ukraine, we tend to forget that other countries still claim parts of Russian territory. The Ukrainian conflict reactivated tensions between Japan and Russia around the Kuril Islands this week.

Credit: Yuri Kaver/RIA Novosti 
Credit: Yuri Kaver/RIA Novosti 
Representing Russia, the Eastern Military District Commander, General Sergei Surovikin, announced on April 18 the implementation of a plan to rearm the Kuril Islands by 2016. One hundred fifty military infrastructures will supposedly be constructed on the archipelago’s southern islands, still claimed by Japan since the USSR annexed them in 1945. “All the 
decisions regarding the construction of military sites on Kunashir and Iturup have been adopted and approved. By 2016, all the sites will be constructed, with their number looming at more than one hundred fifty,” revealed the general. Elsewhere, infrastructures on the island of Sakhalin will be developed. 

The Kurils are an archipelago made up of thirty volcanic islands situated north of Japan. Stretching from the Kamchatka peninsula to the island of Hokkaido in Japan, they separate the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. Though nowadays they are under the administration of Russia, or more particularly the Sakhalin oblast (region), Japan still claims the four most southern islands, being Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan, and the Habomai archipelago. This disagreement has prevented a peace treaty from being signed between the two countries, although diplomatic relations have been maintained. 

Efforts of rapprochement stifled 

If this decision irritates the Japanese, it’s unlikely that the residents of the Kurils are any more pleased. Out of all the islands, which are for the most part inhospitable, only four are inhabited. People on the island of Iturup, for example, live off the exploitation of salmon found in great quantity in the fish­filled waters surrounding the Kurils. The arrival of military infrastructures on this little island is likely to disrupt its ambient serenity. For several years, the inhabitants had gotten used to receiving Japanese visitors each year, who come to visit the islands claimed by their country and get along well with the inhabitants. Amicable relations had been established which are now at risk of being stifled by Russia’s decision to rearm the Kurils. 

On a smaller scale, the Fukushima catastrophe has had an influence on Japan’s diplomatic relations. Stopping the use of nuclear reactors pushed Japan, who is naturally very poor in raw material, to turn towards other sources of energy supply. Though Shinzo Abe eventually decided 
to relaunch the nuclear power plants in his new energy policy project presented on April 11, in the meantime Japan needs enough gas and oil to supply its thermal power plants, hence the rapprochement with their Russian neighbor who produces and exports these resources. 

Effects of the Ukrainian crisis 

The crisis that shook the Ukraine is eventually what increased tensions again between Russia and Japan. The entire world was called upon to take a position on this topic ; China, for example, was somewhat deft. Fervent defender of the principle of territorial integrity and nonintervention, especially since the western countries got involved in the dispute over Tibet, it couldn’t approve the dismantling of a state like the Ukraine. China nevertheless refrained from taking a position against its Russian ally, and settled for an official wish for de­escalation in the conflict. 
Diplomatically, China didn’t cause any upsets. But Japan conformed to the western position, and particularly with the United States’ position, as its traditional ally, that condemns Russia’s role in the secession of Crimea. 

The tension has since gone up a notch : Russia specified its plan to rearm the Kuril Islands which had been announced already in broad terms in 2011, aggravating Japan; the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs canceled his scheduled visit to Moscow this month; and the United States recently reaffirmed their military support of Japan. 

The Kurils, a strategic issue 

The Kuril Islands have frequently changed hands over the course of the last few centuries. At the end of the 16th century, Japan controlled South Kurils and the island of Sakhalin. Thereafter, positions changed regularly up until the Treaty of Shimoda between Japan and Russia in 1855 
that determined the borders between the two States : the island of Sakhalin was shared between Japan and Russia, while Russia regained North Kurils and Japan South Kurils. This treaty marked the beginning of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The situation remained unstable afterward until 1945, when the USSR definitively annexed all the Kuril Islands, an illegal act according to Japan, who considers that the Potsdam Agreement (signed by the Allies in 1945) re­established Japan according to its borders from 1868, a territory that would include the South Kurils. 

The waters that surround the Kurils are full of fish, an important issue for the Japanese, who consume lots of fish and rely on it as their main source of protein. The area is supposedly also rich in hydrocarbons, which interest both Russia and Japan. 

The Kuril Islands form a barrier due to their positioning. The Strait of Tartary forms Russia’s main access to the Pacific Ocean, especially when the northern seas are frozen. It’s therefore vital to Russia that they retain this outpost, a point of passage that allows its ships to deploy from the Vladivostok naval base. 

But the control over the Kuril Islands is also a symbolic issue. Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe aretwo strong personalities. Each one gladly shows off the greatness of his country. Putin doesn’t hide his nostalgia for the great Russia from the time of the USSR, and the annexation of Crimea  fits into this strategy to reaffirm Russia’s grandeur. Georgia and Chechnya have also borne the consequences of this. As for Shinzo Abe, he is progressively splitting off from the pacific Fukuda Doctrine that still influences Japan’s diplomatic relations today. Neither one of the two leaders seem ready to abandon a part of his territory. The announcement to rearm is therefore not insignificant, and the relations between Japan and Russia could greatly suffer from this.