The Kuriles came into Soviet hands as a result of World War II and the maneuverings of Josef Stalin. The Soviet dictator shaped the issue as it stands today during the Yalta conference in February 1945, where he secured Soviet claims on the southern part of Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands in exchange for promising the Allies that the Soviet Union would enter the war against imperial Japan.
As a result of its only World War II campaign against Japan -- the Battle of Manchuria -- the Soviet Union took control of the Kurile Islands. However, it failed in 1951 to finalize the deal when it decided against signing the San Francisco Treaty, which outlined the postwar fate of the islands.
Moreover, the issue of ownership was complicated by the fact that Japan maintained its claim on the four southernmost islands it calls its Northern Territories. Those islands had been administered before the war by Japan's Hokkaido Island.
In the late 1980s and 90s, Soviet and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin took steps to settle the dispute by speaking about the possibility of "transferring" control of the four southernmost islands to Japan following the signing of a formal World War II peace treaty. The deal was also contingent on the promise of Japanese investment.
President Putin initially followed his predecessors' path upon taking office in 2000. But midway through his second term his administration completely reversed course, backing its tough new stance via statements and deeds.
On August 4, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref announced a large-scale federal program intended to develop the Kurile Islands and to double its shrinking population of 18,000 by 2015. The 17.9 billion ruble (more than $600 million) program would make the Kuriles the best-funded region in Russia per capita. Meanwhile, Defense Minster Sergei Ivanov announced that the lion's share of these funds will be allocated for infrastructure projects to be carried out largely by the military and Federal Security Service personnel that make up two-thirds of the islands' population.
In the wake of the outcry in Japan that followed the announcement, Russia turned the screws. As if to confirm Japanese concerns, Duma International Relations Committee Chairman Konstatin Kosachev said August 29 that "the issue of the development of the Kurile Islands is an exclusively Russian domestic issue. It has no relevance at all to Russia's relations with Japan and Japan's well-known claims to the islands," edinros.ru reported.
The issue was further heightened when a Japanese fisherman was killed and three were detained near the Kuriles by FSB border troops on the basis that they had been illegally crab fishing in Russian waters. It was the first fatality that had occurred among the many poaching incidents that have been documented between the two countries in the past 60 years. Following strong Japanese diplomatic and public protests Russia eventually returned the body of the dead fisherman and two of shipmates to Japan. However, the captain of the ship remains in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital of the islands, where he awaits trial.
Russo-Japanese treaty of 1855 deliminates Kuriles border. All islands north of Uruppu will be Russian; south of Etorofu to Japan.
Japan inherits Kurile Islands in 1875 in exchange for ceding Sakhalin to Russia.
Treaty of Portsmouth (1905), ending the Russo-Japanese War, cedes parts of Sakhalin and adjacent islands to Japan.
Japan renounces its claims to the Kuriles and to parts of Sakhalin in the Treaty of San Franciso, which the USSR fails to sign.
Many observers believe that the Russian troops intentionally overreacted to the alleged incursion to teach Japan a lesson. Indeed, poaching in this region is a rule rather than an exception, although Russian fisherman are generally more involved in illegal fishing practices than their Japanese counterparts. Russian fishermen often cull crabs in their own waters and then transfer their catches to Japanese vessels in neutral waters. This practice has been conducted at such a massive scale that crab prices have fallen to the extent in the past 10 years that it is no longer considered a delicacy.
The Russia Foreign Ministry followed up on the detention of the fishermen by protesting what it called the mass violation of fishing rules by 39 Japanese ships that it accused of illegally entering Russian waters in late August. The ministry on August 28 characterized the incursion as a "political provocation." Duma Deputy Speaker Vladimir Zhirnovsky accused Japan of artificially raising tensions over the Kuriles in order to fuel nationalist sentiment ahead of the country's elections for prime minister in September. But on 31 August, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin told radio Mayak that the Russian response constituted an "emotional" overreaction, and that the Japanese fishing boats had been harvesting seaweed in full compliance of agreements signed in 1981 and 1988.
Future Russian-Japanese Relations
Moscow's decision to choose confrontation with Tokyo over the Kuriles raises the question as to what levers Russia holds in its relations with Japan.
One of the informal leaders of the national-patriotic camp in Russia, Duma International Relations Committee Deputy Chairwoman Natalia Narochnitskaya, has described Moscow's changed policy toward Japan as well-calculated and long overdue.
Speaking at a roundtable discussion on the future of Russian-Japanese relations organized by Ekho Moskvy radio on August 30, Narochnitskaya said that the Kremlin had made the decision to drop the Kuriles policy forwarded by Gorbachev and Yeltsin, whose "extreme advances" merely served to whet Japan's appetite.
She singled out a statement by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in November 2004 as particularly egregious. While it is normal diplomatic policy to gradually retreat from initial bargaining positions, she said, he went too far by expressing Russia's readiness to recognize a Soviet-Japanese joint declaration of 1956 that would open the way for the transfer of two of the southern islands to Japan.
Speaking about the future of Russian-Japanese relations, the influential Narochnitskaya said she no longer believes compromise is possible. She said Russia views the Kuriles as a war prize, and that in that context it is not important who owned the islands prior to World War II.
Addressing the issue of a peace treaty ending the Soviet Union's brief hostilities against Japan in the war, Narochnitskaya said a formal truce is not necessary. She said that Russia can build its relations with Japan regardless, noting that "Russia and Germany also have no peace treaty, but have very good relations." Narochnitskaya stressed that Russia's refusal to compromise on the issue should not be considered confrontational, adding that "any strengthening or growth of Japan does not impair our interests."
The Economic Factor
Politically, Russia, can play the energy card as leverage in its relations with energy dependent Japan. But there is another, economic, aspect to its strategy regarding the Kurile Islands.
Until quite recently Russian business largely ignored this region. However, driven by the tremendous profits they have received from high global oil prices, Russian oligarchs and business groups have begun to set their sights on the immense natural resources there.
According to an evaluation conducted by Russia's Natural Resources Ministry, the contentious southern islands boast considerable deposits of oil, as well as magnesium, titanium, and the precious metal rhenium, "Finansovye izvestia," reported on August 4. The worth of the islands' resources are thought to be worth some $2.5 trillion, while fishing in neighboring waters can bring in an estimated $4.5 billion a year.