It may be hard to believe, but Japan and Russia are technically at war. While no shots have been fired, the two nations have argued for decades over territorial claims to the Kuril Islands. The Kurils are a string of over 50 small volcanic islands situated off Japan’s northern coast and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Russia refers to the islands as the Kurils, while Japan calls them the Northern Territories. The islands, largely under Russian jurisdiction, offer little strategic or economic value, however, Japan maintains a claim on four of the southernmost islands as its own territory. The dispute over the Kurils has been a roadblock for Russian-Japanese relations, and the dogma between these nations – complicated by the sporadic involvement of the U.S. – remains in a stalemate, most recently flaring up within the last week.
On 26 July 2021, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishutstin visited the Kuril Islands. The visit’s purpose was to establish a new economic zone in the Kurils, which would exempt certain investors from taxes and customs duties. According to the Associated Press, this economic zone “could be a good solution for investors, including the ones in the West, for Japan also, which, if interested, can create jobs [in the Kuril Islands].” However, the Russian visit was quickly rebuked by the Japanese. A similar spat occurred in 2015 when former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited the disputed islands, again without permission or support from the Japanese government.
The history of the Kurils goes back to the beginning of the 20th century when Japan defeated Imperial Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and claimed sovereignty over the Kuril Islands. Japan held the islands formally until the end of World War II when, with the fall of the Japanese Empire in 1945, the United States made a deal with the Soviet Union at the Yalta Conference that the USSR could regain control of the Kuril Islands. The dispute accelerated in 1951 when Russia and Japan argued over territorial rights to the four southernmost islands. During this time, the U.S. commissioned the Treaty of San Francisco, which brought about a formal peace between the Allied powers and Japan. However, the Soviet Union refused to sign the treaty for several reasons, one of which was that the treaty forced Japan to “renounce all right, title and claim to the Kuril Islands,” but did not give the islands to the Soviets.
Another attempt at a formal treaty between the Soviet Union and Japan was made in 1956, but the U.S. intervened to prevent the USSR from gaining territory, and the treaty was never signed. Since then, the Kuril Islands have remained a disputed territory. As no formal peace treaty has been signed by both Japan and Russia since the Second World War, the two nations remain officially at war.
This dispute between Japan and Russia needs to be settled so the dogma can be set aside, and both nations are willing to compromise, particularly over a territory that offers almost no strategic or economic importance. Moreover, the U.S. also has a role to play, which is one of non-interference so to encourage resolution rather than block it. The outcome could lead to a more substantive and meaningful economic partnership between Japan and Russia. The Kuril Island dispute is a non-consequential issue and is a roadblock to what could be a valuable bridge between two powerful nations. In order to ensure the best possible partnership between Russia and Japan, it is important the Kuril Island dispute is resolved swiftly and completely.