Borysfen Intel

The Kuril Islands and Ukraine

December 22, 2016
<p>The Kuril Islands and Ukraine</p>

Oleksiy Volovych

At first glance, it would seem that the Kuril Islands and Ukraine are sundered like the poles. What connection could be between them? But it turns out that actually everything is interconnected in this globalized world. In our time, we quite often see how consequences of a resonant event in one end of the world appear in its other end. Examples of this are Russia's relations with Japan in the East and with Ukraine in the West.

Ukraine and Japan are brought together by two related problems — Russia's occupation of Ukrainian and Japanese territories: in Ukraine — it is the Crimea and a part of the Donbas, and in Japan — four southern islands of the Kuril Ridge. Like Japan, Ukraine consistently advocates the return of the annexed Crimea and the occupied part of the Donbas into its legal terrain. The Japanese leadership strongly supports the Kyiv's desire to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Being a member of the “Big Seven”, Japan consistently shows solidarity with the West regarding the anti-Russian policy of sanctions in response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine.

It is no incident that the Japanese link their territorial problem of the Kuril Islands to the territorial problem that has arisen as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, since both these precedents to change territorial boundaries of Japan and Ukraine have arisen as a result of Russia's (USSR's) using military force and, in my opinion, they must be resolved on the basis of identical international legal approaches.

 

The Problem of the Kuril Islands after 1991

In 1992, Russia offered to return to Japan two of the four islands, located north of Hokkaido, making it before the conclusion of a peace treaty, and to negotiate on the fate of the remaining two islands. However, this proposal was rejected in Tokyo. In 1993, the Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia relations was signed, which recorded the desire of the parties to resolve the issue of territorial jurisdiction of the four southern Kuril Islands.

In 1997, during the informal summit in Krasnoyarsk, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto agreed to sign a peace treaty until 2000. According to the results of the meeting of Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in Irkutsk March 25, 2001, the parties agreed to speed up the negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty by solving the issue of the jurisdiction of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai and thus to achieve a full normalization of bilateral relations. These 4 islands account for about half the total area of the Kuril Ridge, about 5 thousand square kilometers of 10 thousand, and most of the resident population — almost 16 thousand people of the 18 thousand as of 2010.

In January 2003, at a meeting in Moscow, V. Putin and Japan's Prime Minister J. Koizumi adopted a “Japan-Russia Action Plan” which, among other things, pointed out that to speed up the negotiations on the conclusion of a peace agreement “it is necessary to ensure in bilateral relations the atmosphere free from emotions and bias”. In November 2005, during his official visit to Tokyo, Russian President V. Putin said that Moscow was ready to resolve the territorial dispute with Japan, but again no concrete actions followed.

Later, Russia's position on the status of the Kuril Islands in fact returned to the Soviet one, and Moscow shied away from acknowledging the very existence of the subject to a territorial dispute. In subsequent years, at various levels, Moscow and Tokyo would ritually denounce each other and exchange notes of protest in response to a variety of harsh statements and actions of the parties. Tokyo kept stating that the “northern territories are the ancient territories of Japan, remaining under Russia's illegal occupation”. Moscow, in turn, never tired of reminding that “the Southern Kuril Islands are an integral part of the territory of the Russian Federation on legal grounds by the results of the Second World War enshrined in the UN Charter”.

In 2010, 2012 and 2015, Dmitry Medvedev as the then President or Prime Minister of the Russian Federation visited the disputed islands, each time causing condemnation of the Japanese government. Until March 2012 4 southern islands in Japan had been called “illegally occupied territories”, and later — the “territories occupied without legal grounds”.

By the end of 2012, when Shinzo Abe headed the second government, the relations between him and V. Putin were quite trusting. May 6, 2016, in Sochi there was V. Putin and Sh. Abe's 13th in a row meeting, three weeks prior to the next G-7 summit (Japan, May 26-27). At this summit, the G7 leaders reaffirmed “the condemnation of Russia's illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula” and called on Russia “to fulfill its obligations for settlement of the situation in the Donbas in accordance with the Minsk Agreements”.

In numerous contacts with Sh. Abe, V. Putin made it clear that he was ready to consider ways to solve the territorial dispute between the two countries. He pointed out that the way out of that situation had to be an acceptable compromise so that neither side would feel like a loser.

In April 2013, Shinzo Abe visited Moscow on an official visit, during which a commission was established at the level of Deputy Foreign Ministers to negotiate on disputed territories. For 2014 was planned V. Putin's return visit to Japan, but Russia's aggression against Ukraine and the international community's sanctions against the Kremlin did not contribute to the creation of a favorable atmosphere for the visit, and it took place in December 2016.

For 17 years of his rule, V. Putin has visited Japan only three times: in July 2000 within the framework of the meeting at the G8 summit in Okinawa, and during official visits in September 2000 and in November 2005. Such a long interval of 11 years between 2005's visit and the visit on 15-16 December 2016 visit was due to the absence of a favorable atmosphere for the meetings of the leaders. And even before the latest visit, Russia continued provocative actions that could have led to another postponing of V. Putin's visit to Tokyo.

On the eve of Putin's visit to Japan, Russian media had been actively discussing the Kremlin's plans to strengthen the military infrastructure in Sakhalin and in the Kuril Islands. In particular, they discussed the possibility of basing forces of the Pacific Fleet (PF) in Matus of the Kuril Ridge. October 22, RF Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu voiced Russia's plans to build a military base in the Kurils. In November 2016, in the Kuril islands of Iturup and Kunashir, in the immediate vicinity of the Japanese territory, Russia deployed missile complexes “Bastion” and “Bal” with supersonic operational missiles that caused outrage on the part of the Japanese government and the public. The Japanese government sent an official protest to the Russian leadership.

 

V. Putin's Visit to Japan on 15-16 December, 2016

The Russian Federation's President's visit to Japan on December 15-16, 2016, was already V. Putin's 16th meeting with Sh. Abe. The question of concluding a peace treaty between Russia and Japan was discussed with Putin for five hours, including almost and hour and a half — face to face, but no progress was made. Of course, the content of the negotiations is not fully disclosed, and we can judge about their results only on the basis of statements by V. Putin and Sh. Abe at the final press conference, as well as by publications in the international media. For example, the English-speaking Japanese edition “Japan  Times” in an article on the results of the summit says that “the talks between Abe and Putin did not end in a tie — Abe did not gain any tangible points in the match of the “diplomatic judo” for the sovereignty of the four disputed islands north of Hokkaido”.

The Japanese media have reported on the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) being disappointed with very modest results of Sh. Abe's talks with V. Putin. According to Secretary General of the Party Toshihiro Nikai, “a large part of Japan's population has remained absolutely dissatisfied with the visit of the Russian President”. (The Chairman of the Party is Prime Minister Sh. Abe). Indeed, according to the “Kiodo” agency's poll, 54.3 % of the Japanese people negatively estimate the results of Sh. Abe's talks with V. Putin, as a result — the Japanese government's approval rating has fallen to just 6 %. At this, the Japanese Prime Minister himself says that the Russian President's visit to Japan “has added to a new, great upswing of the bilateral relations”.

At the final press conference after the talks, as if to calm the Japanese public, frustrated by the lack of progress in resolving the territorial dispute, V. Putin said that signing a peace treaty is the most important issue of Russia-Japan bilateral relations, which, in his opinion, would create necessary conditions for cooperation between the countries in the medium and long term.

Sh. Abe and V. Putin expressed the willingness of the parties to establish a “joint economic activity” within the framework of a special regime in the disputed islands. What that “special regime” is about, no one knows. It has to be developed. It should be noted that the proposal for a “joint economic activity” is not a new initiative, and has been abstracted from the archives of the Russian-Japanese dossier. Thus, in accordance with the Moscow Declaration of 1998 “On the Establishment of a Constructive Partnership between the Russian Federation and Japan”, a subcommittee had to be established on joint economic activities on the islands of Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai. But since then, no concrete progress on this has been achieved.

According to many experts, the joint economic activities on the southern Kurils will not be easy, because there will inevitably arise complex problems related to the sovereignty harmonization of the legislation of the two countries. So, first the question of joint economic activities should be worked on by experts of the two countries. Sh. Abe has suggested to create a separate structure for this purpose, to conclude an intergovernmental agreement and to work out the mechanism of interaction. According to experts, it will take at best several years to move from the beginning of the negotiations to practical joint economic activities.

The sides agreed to intensify economic cooperation. In particular, in the energy sphere they discussed the construction of a gas pipeline from Sakhalin to Hokkaido. The issue of the construction of the gas pipeline is sooner geopolitical than economic, as it is consistent with V. Putin's idée fixe of spreading Moscow's influence to other countries through their ties to Russian gas pipelines. Japan has already contracted for the long term sufficient LNG volumes from several countries, but for the sake of returning the “northern territories”, the Japanese seem to be ready to import “extra” Russian gas, especially as, come the need, they can resell it to somebody at a profit, as Europeans do selling Russian gas to Ukraine.

The talks also discussed the “futuristic” question of the railway communication between Russia and Japan. Even before V. Putin's visit to Japan, the leaders of Sakhalin region and Khabarovsk Territory presented to Japanese colleagues 29 investment-projects worth 16 billion US dollars, but in reality Japan promised the Russian Federation investments worth modest 2.5 billion US dollars, — the sum which matches neither Japan's capabilities nor Russia's scale. Naturally, investments are not a charity, so the Japanese will never invest more than they can get in return. In general, within the framework of V. Putin's visit, Russian and Japanese business structures signed a package of documents consisting of 68 agreements and deals.

Some Russian analysts estimate the agreements reached on the intensification of Russia-Japan economic cooperation as a breakthrough in the economic blockade of Russia from the West. However, on 15 December, 2016, on the first day of V. Putin's visit, Japanese Minister of Economy Hiroshige Seko said that Tokyo did not intend to sign with Russia economic agreements, which would be contrary to the policy of sanctions imposed on Moscow by the countries G7 “after the annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula and in connection with the Russian policy towards Ukraine”. Obviously this can explain the relatively modest volume of investments promised by Japanese businessmen to Russia.

Speaking of the prospects of Russia and Japan's cooperation in the settlement of the territorial dispute between the two countries, they largely depend on the term of Sh. Abe's staying in office as Prime Minister. It should be noted that after the Second World War, no one in Japan headed the government as long as Sh. Abe. And if in March 2017 the congress of the ruling LDP allows to hold the post of party leader for nine years, he will be an absolute “long-liver” in the post of Prime Minister, as according to the Japanese Constitution, the leader of the ruling party simultaneously serves as Prime Minister. This possible scenario would allow Sh. Abe to be at the head of the government until 2021, provided that the LDP wins the parliamentary elections in December 2018.

At the talks in Tokyo was invisibly present a “third party”, i.e. the United States — Japan's strategic ally. On the eve of V. Putin's visit to Japan, the Russian media had written quite a lot about the fact that “since 1945, Japan has been in the status of the USA's geopolitical colony”. V. Putin hinted on this in his interview with Japanese reporters of the “Nippon” TV channel and the “Yomiuri” newspaper: “We need to understand the degree of freedom of Japan and what Japan itself can resort to”. I think that in his talks tete-a-tete with Sh. Abe, V. Putin spoke more openly about “Japan's dependence on the United States”. At a press conference in Tokyo, the Russian President also recalled that in 1956, when the Soviet Union and Japan came close to solving the territorial issue, “the USA was against it, threatening to fully establish its control over the Japanese island of Okinawa”.

Until recently, 18 % of the territory of Okinawa were occupied by US military bases, for which the Japanese were paying 75 % of their maintenance budget. 21 and 22 December 2016, the Command of US troops in Japan transferred to the Japanese prefectural administration of Okinawa a part of the territory (about 4 thousand hectars), in which the US military objects were located. 70 % of all US military facilities in Japan are concentrated in Okinawa. According to the administration of Okinawa, there are almost 26 thousand US military servicemen and 19 thousand members of their families and US civilians.

However, even today Japan does not exclude the possibility of deploying US military bases on the two islands of the Southern Kuril Islands, if they are transferred to Tokyo. This was voiced by Japan National Security Advisor Setar Yachi during his meeting in Moscow at the end of November with his Russian counterpart N. Patrushev. Just before V. Putin's visit an influential Japanese edition — newspaper “Asahi” also reminded about this.

According to some experts, Washington will not stay in the way of deepening of Russian-Japanese relations, as long as it does not lead to weakening of the US-Japan alliance. According to other experts, Washington is interested in preserving the territorial dispute between Japan and Russia over the Kuril Islands, as it, on the one hand, makes Japan “more manageable” as a major USA's ally in the Asia-Pacific region, and on the other — weakens Moscow's positions in the region. It should be noted that in order to demonstrate Tokyo's solidarity with Washington and Brussels on the policy to deter Russia, in accordance with the Japanese tradition, Emperor of Japan Akihito didn`t meet with V. Putin.

Ukraine was also quite noticeably “present” at V. Putin's talks with Sh. Abe in Tokyo. One aspect of the political component of the interaction of Russia and Japan, is the attitudes of the two countries to the current military-political situation in the South-East of Ukraine, which has arisen as a result of Russia's aggression. On insistence of Sh. Abe, the situation in Ukraine was discussed at the talks, but Putin tried in every way to avoid it. Earlier, on 13 December, in his interview for Japanese media, he expressed “sincere not-understanding” of linking Japan-Russian relations to the situations in Ukraine and Syria: “Japan has imposed economic sanctions against us. Why? As a result of the events in the Ukraine or in Syria? Japan with the Japan-Russia relations, and Syria and the events in Ukraine are sundered like the poles?!”. Well, Comrade Putin does not understand this and that's it!

The Japanese know firsthand what the occupied territories are about, so immediately after Russia's illegal annexation of the Crimea, Tokyo strongly supported Kyiv and joined all Western sanctions against Russia. In March 2014, at the height of the Russian aggression in the Crimea, Japan, together with the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions against Russia. The Japanese government suspended the consultations with the Kremlin about easing the visa regime, imposed personal sanctions against 23  Russian citizens and a ban on the supply to Russia weapons and military technologies. Japan also banned the entry of a number of figures from Putin's environment and representatives of the “LPR” and “DPR”. Five Russian banks — Sberbank, Vnesheconombank, VTB, “Gazprombank” and “Rosselkhozbank” — were banned from acquiring Japanese bonds for risk insurance.

At present, the total package of Japan's aid to Ukraine has reached 2 billion US dollars. It is the largest among all countries sponsoring Ukraine. A significant portion of this amount is aimed at strengthening the defense capability of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Japan has passed 9500 sets of winter uniform for the Ukrainian Police. Besides, Japan has provided the Ukrainian Police with 1500 cars “Toyota Prius”, which are used by the Police.

In June 2015, for the first time in the history of Ukraine-Japan relations, Ukraine without a visit to Moscow was visited by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and in July 2016 Kyiv was visited by Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida. April 5-7, President of Ukraine P. Poroshenko made an official visit to Japan at the invitation of Prime Minister Sh. Abe. At the beginning of December 2016, the Japanese Prime Minister Sh. Abe had telephone talks with Ukrainian President P. Poroshenko, during which he informed his Ukrainian counterpart about the content of the upcoming talks with V. Putin, discussed the situation in the South-East of Ukraine, as well as the issue of extending and further strengthening sanctions against Russia. The two leaders discussed the holding in 2017 the Year of Japan in Ukraine. P. Poroshenko invited the Japanese Prime Minister to visit Ukraine at a convenient time for him.

 

Conclusions and Forecasts

Within the framework of the latest (December 2016) V. Putin's visit to Tokyo, as well as during previous negotiations of the leaders of Russia and Japan, the parties' positions on the issue of signing a peace treaty and resolving the old territorial dispute between the two countries did not happen and could not happen as for Moscow the issue of returning “northern territories” to Japan is the subject of bargaining. Moscow has put the question bluntly: help us in the development of our infrastructure in the Far East and Eastern Siberia, and then we'll talk about a peace treaty. Thus, its right to returning “northern territories” Japan must “earn”.

Russia's largely ostentatious militarization of the Kuril Islands, in my view, should also be seen as the Kremlin's raising the rates in the bargaining with Japan: so be it, we will remove our missiles from the islands of Iturup and Kunashir, but you, please, think about investing into our infrastructure in the Far East and on the Kurile islands.

For Russia, with its small GDP (3.7 trillion US dollars as of 2015) in ratio to the vast territory of 17 million square kilometers, it is especially difficult to create, develop and maintain the industrial infrastructure in the Siberia and the Far East (70 % of the entire territory of the Russian Federation), where the population density is 2 persons per 1 square kilometer, while in neighboring China and Japan, it's respectively — 140 and 337 persons per 1 sq. km. At this, the population in the Siberia and the Far East is only about 20 million people, is constantly decreasing in the range of 100 thousand people a year. The total GDP of China and Japan is 24.1 trillion US dollars (China's — 19.3 trillion US dollars, and Japan's — 4.8 trillion US dollars as of 2015), which is 6.5 times more than Russia's GDP. As for China's human resources, it is common knowledge that on this indicator it is ranked first in the world — 1.373 billion people, which is almost 10 times more than in Russia — 142 million people. But perhaps not everyone knows that Japan (378 thousand square kilometers) which is 45 times smaller than Russia, is home to 126 million people, which is comparable with the population of Russia. These simple calculations give us reason to believe that without the involvement of the Chinese and Japanese human and financial resources, the Siberia and the Far East are doomed to degradation. Therefore, the Chinese and Japanese expansion into the Siberia and the Far East is inevitable. The only question is — in what form and at what pace this will happen.

Japan needs Russia to balance its relations with China, which today acts as a monopolist in the sphere of investments into the Siberia and the Far East. Competition between China and Japan for Russian markets and resources suits Russia's interest, as it will allow it to have a wider range of freedom and choice in modeling economic relations with these countries. I think that Russia will not stop at the cooperation with China and Japan for the development of the Siberia and the Far East, but will try to increase economic cooperation with other countries of the Asia-Pacific region. This perspective corresponds to the Kremlin's plans to develop a strategy for Russia's Eastern policy, as mentioned by V. Putin in his Address to the Federal Assembly on 1st December 2016. The attempts to “turn Russia to the East” are also associated with the deterioration of its relations with the West as a result of Russia's aggression against Ukraine. But V. Putin should not forget that the West is represented in the Asia-Pacific by countries such as USA, Canada, Australia and the same Japan. So Putin, cannot get away from the West. And Russia's full cooperation with the aforementioned “pro-Western countries” in the APR is only possible after Putin's departure from the Crimea and Donbas.

Putin hopes that for the sake of reaching a compromise on the territorial dispute and intensification of the economic cooperation with Russia, Japan would soften or lift the existing sanctions against Russia, related to Russia's aggression of Russia against Ukraine. In this way, the Kremlin is trying to split the common position of the “Big Seven” on the Ukrainian issue. On the other hand, we should not rule out that the tested format of the joint economic activities between Russia and Japan in the occupied Southern Kuriles can be then be offered by Putin to Ukraine for implementation in the Crimea according to the formula: “one Peninsula for two countries”. And if in Ukraine, God forbid, “regionals” and their “fellow travelers” return to power, they will most likely agree to such hypothetical proposal of Putin's.

It seems that in the future, despite Putin's maneuvers, Japan's leadership will not deviate from the principled position on the full support of Ukraine in its confrontation with Putin's Russia. A friend in need is a friend indeed. And today we can say that although Japan is far away from Ukraine, but, like no other country in the world, it provides us with the most important friendly support and assistance, which gives us the strength to fight for a better future of Ukraine and its liberation from Russia's occupation. The faraway Japan is our close friend and reliable partner. And we must do everything possible and impossible to ensure that we have more such friends as Japan.

 

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