Escalating friction: unpacking rising tensions in the Kuril Islands dispute

As the Kuril Islands dispute takes centre stage, the Pacific region finds itself navigating complex geopolitical currents, with major global players influencing the course of events and shaping the future of this long-standing territorial disagreement.

The Kuril Islands conflict arose from Russia’s control of these 56 islands since the end of World War II, particularly  Japan’s claim to the South Kuril Islands. The disagreement has prevented a formal peace treaty between the two nations. Despite the islands’ small size, they hold strategic and economic importance, leading both countries to resist giving up their respective claims.

Efforts to resolve the issue date back to 1956 when Russia proposed a compromise, offering Japan two smaller islands in exchange for relinquishing the larger ones, which Japan rejected. In 2018, talks resumed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, revisiting the 1956 proposal. However, negotiations were abruptly halted in 2022 when Russia withdrew due to Japan imposing sanctions over Russia’s Ukraine invasion.


Historical Background

The legal and territorial definition of the Kuril Islands has a complex history, marked by shifting agreements and disputes between Russia and Japan. The roots of the issue date back to the mid-19th century. The Treaty of Shimoda in 1855 established the first official ties between the two nations and delineated the borders between Russia and Japan, designating the Kuril Islands. According to this treaty, Iturup belonged to Japan, while Urup and the northern Kuril Islands were Russian possessions.

However, the Treaty of Saint Petersburg in 1875 saw a shift in ownership. Russia ceded the entire Kuril Islands region to Japan in exchange for the large island of Sakhalin. Translation discrepancies in official texts contributed to ambiguity regarding which islands were considered part of the Kuril Islands.

The situation remained relatively dormant until 1945 when, at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union seized control of the disputed region. Two years later, Soviet forces expelled the islands’ native Japanese inhabitants.

Despite the conclusion of peace treaties between the warring parties of WWII, Japan and the Soviet Union (later Russia) never signed a peace agreement to officially end hostilities and define their post-war relationship. The Kuril Islands dispute persists, and the absence of a peace treaty between Japan and Russia has been a longstanding issue.

The unresolved matter was highlighted by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both expressing regret over the political deadlock on the Kuril Islands. Despite dissatisfaction on both sides, concrete political resolutions have remained elusive.


Geostrategic Importance

The Kuril Islands hold considerable military and political significance for Russia, primarily due to their strategic geographical position. Serving as a crucial gateway for Russia’s Pacific Fleet, these islands enable more accessible navigation for warships and submarines, particularly during the challenging sub-zero temperatures of winter. This tactical advantage allowed Russia to effectively manoeuvre its naval forces from Vladivostok into the Pacific Ocean.

Beyond their geographical importance, the Kuril Islands also represent a security concern for Russia. The fear is rooted in the possibility of Japan regaining sovereignty over the islands and utilizing them as military bases, potentially deploying long-range missiles. This apprehension is compounded by the prospect that, under Japanese control, the islands could host military assets from allied nations, including the United States.

The international implications extend further, with concerns that Japan’s control over the Kuril Islands might lead to the establishment of U.S. military bases on the Nansei Islands. Such a scenario heightens Russia’s anxieties, as it could mean a foreign military presence in proximity to its borders, affecting regional dynamics. Additionally, the Kuril Islands play a role in maintaining Russian jurisdiction over the Sea of Okhotsk, and any change in ownership could force the Sea of Okhotsk to accommodate foreign-owned military ships. In essence, the Kuril Islands represent a complex geopolitical puzzle with both military and political considerations at play for Russia.


Russia’s Advantages

The Cold War era marked a pivotal period for the Kuril Islands as the Soviet Union, strategically positioned in the Asia-Pacific Northwest, recognized their indispensable value. Geographically, the islands served as a crucial asset for Moscow in addressing two key political and strategic priorities in the region.

Firstly, the Soviet Union aimed to safeguard its Pacific territories from potential U.S. military operations, particularly those originating from bases in the Japanese archipelago and near Guam. Secondly, the control of the Kuril Islands was deemed essential, as they constituted the sole access and exit route from the Sea of Okhotsk to the open Pacific.

To pursue these strategic objectives, the Soviet Union developed a military doctrine for the Asia-Pacific Northwest, acknowledging the Kuril Archipelago’s substantial importance as a natural barrier. This assessment led to the militarization of the Kurils from 1970 onwards, particularly to establish sea control in the waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. The islands became home to ballistic missile nuclear submarines of the Pacific Fleet, stationed at Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation initially adopted a policy of reducing its presence in the Asia-Pacific area. This approach changed with the emergence of U.S. geopolitical interests in the region, culminating in the “Pivot to Asia” policy during the Obama administration. The subsequent administrations, including Trump and Biden, continued this policy to counter China’s expanding influence in the region.

In response to the evolving geopolitical landscape, Vladimir Putin reevaluated Russia’s posture in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in collaboration with China. The growing U.S. presence in areas such as the East China Sea, Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and the vicinity of the Kuril Archipelago prompted a reconsideration of military strategy. This included the modernization of military assets in key bases like Vladivostok and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, as well as the allocation of funds for the rearmament of the Kuril Archipelago.

Furthermore, Moscow emphasized a military partnership with China to maintain control over the geo-maritime space adjacent to the Korean Peninsula and near the Strait of La Pérouse. Regular joint military exercises, such as Vostok 2018, underscored this collaborative approach, where China participated with a significant military contingent. Overall, Russia’s military strategy in the region reflects a combination of modernization efforts, territorial reinforcement, and collaboration with key regional partners.


Special Economic Zone Appeal

In 2021, Vladimir Putin proposed the establishment of a potential special economic zone (SEZ) on the Kuril Islands, a move aimed at attracting foreign investment and fostering economic development. The proposed SEZ would operate under Russian law, and companies within it would enjoy ten years free from income and property taxes. While this proposal presents clear economic benefits, it has also led to tensions between Russia and Japan.

Japan, which refers to the Kuril Islands as the ‘Northern Territories’ and claims sovereignty over them, has sought, albeit unsuccessfully so far, a special arrangement that would allow Japanese companies to operate outside the jurisdiction of Russian law. This request is grounded in Japan’s assertion that the islands remain part of Japan. The disagreement over the operating terms has yet to be resolved, and a final decision is pending.

Despite the ongoing dispute, the implementation of the SEZ would bring significant advantages. The Kuril Islands could potentially attract foreign direct investment (FDI), although this may be limited due to existing sanctions against Russia. Additionally, the SEZ could spur improvements in infrastructure on the islands.

Apart from the SEZ proposal, the Kuril Islands boast a robust fishing industry that has experienced substantial growth in recent years. The waters surrounding the islands yield an estimated three million tonnes of fish and seafood annually, offering lucrative economic opportunities.

However, in June 2022, Russia imposed a ban on Japanese companies harvesting in the waters near the Kuril Islands, citing Japan’s alleged failure to pay for the quotas of fish caught. This development added a layer of complexity to the economic dynamics of the region.

Beyond fisheries, the Kuril Islands are believed to harbour untapped oil and gas reserves. Additionally, they hold one of the world’s largest reserves of rhenium, a rare metal with applications in the medical and aerospace industries. These resources further contribute to the economic potential of the Kuril Islands, making them a focal point in the ongoing geopolitical and economic considerations between Russia and Japan.


Current Situation

The geopolitical landscape in the Pacific region is evolving, with Japan expressing increasing concerns about China’s regional ambitions. In response, Japan has strengthened its ties with NATO, an alliance that aims to limit the influence of both China and Russia globally. Backed by the United States, Japan has become more assertive on regional issues, and its longstanding dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands has come into sharper focus.

As Russia’s offensive in Ukraine unfolded in March, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi renewed Tokyo’s claims on the southern Kurils, referred to as the “Northern Territories” by Japan. Hayashi asserted that the southern Kurils are an “integral part” of Japan. This move marked a notable escalation in Japan’s stance on the Kuril Islands dispute.

In response to Japan’s increased assertiveness, Russia, which has maintained control over the entire Kuril island chain since 1945, including its southern portion, announced the withdrawal from peace talks with Japan concerning the Kuril Islands. The Russian government also conducted military drills in the disputed region in late March, showcasing its military capabilities as a demonstration of strength against both Japan and the Western Bloc.

Russia’s foreign ministry explicitly blamed the United States for allegedly perpetuating Japan’s territorial claims against Russia, suggesting that the U.S. was doing so to prevent full-scale and long-term cooperation between Russia and Japan. The tensions in the Pacific region, fueled by geopolitical considerations and territorial disputes, underscore the intricate dynamics at play among major global powers.

The Kuril Islands dispute has become a focal point of contention, reflecting broader geopolitical shifts and power struggles in the Pacific, with Japan aligning itself strategically and diplomatically in response to regional concerns. The situation remains fluid, and the competing interests of major players in the region contribute to the complexity and unpredictability of diplomatic relations and territorial disputes.