On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will arrive in Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It will be their 25th meeting in five years. Russia’s growing international isolation has not affected its relationship with its eastern neighbor: unlike other Group of Seven governments, Tokyo has been mostly silent on the Kremlin’s domestic human rights abuses, its military excursions in Syria and its continued belligerence toward Ukraine. According to Putin’s press office, the agenda of the upcoming summit includes “bilateral political, economic and humanitarian cooperation … [and] questions relating to the conclusion of a peace agreement between the two countries.”
This last sentence explains the Japanese government’s conciliatory stance toward the Kremlin. Prime Minister Abe hopes to go down in history as the man who has solved the decades-long territorial dispute in the Pacific and returned some of the territory imperial Japan lost in the Second World War.
Remarkable as this may sound, that war continues. Having boycotted the signing of the San Francisco peace accord in 1951, the Soviet Union never concluded its own peace agreement with Japan. Among the reasons was Japan’s refusal to recognize Soviet sovereignty over the Kuril Islands, an island chain of some 800 miles that runs between Hokkaido and Kamchatka, separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. The islands changed hands between Japan and Russia for centuries, and were incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1945 as part of the agreement reached at the Yalta Conference. Since 1946, the Kurils have been part of Russia’s Sakhalin region.
Japan never recognized the loss of the islands, claiming them as its “Northern Territories” within the Hokkaido Governorate. In October 1956, Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Japanese Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama signed a joint declaration that normalized bilateral relations and established that the Soviet Union “agrees to transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and the Island of Shikotan … after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty.” In return Japan would recognize Soviet sovereignty over Iturup and Kunashir, the other two major islands of the Kuril chain. The peace treaty was never signed.
At their meetings in Singapore and Buenos Aires last year, Putin and Abe announced their intention to “accelerate negotiations on a peace treaty based on the 1956 joint declaration” and appointed special envoys to conduct those talks. The specific reference to the 1956 document was taken as Putin’s willingness to cede part of Russian territory to Japan. Earlier this month, Abe swore on his father’s grave to “put an end” to the dispute.
“The main thing [for Putin] is not the islands, but the peace treaty,” said Alexei Venediktov, editor in chief of Ekho Moskvy, Russia’s largest independent radio station. “A peace treaty with Japan would mean the end of the Second World War … Putin is ready to exchange a couple of islands to … become the man who drew the line under the war. Forget [the Soviet war commander Marshall Georgy] Zhukov, forget Churchill.”
This is not the first time Japan appears close to regaining its former territory from Russia. In November 1997, at their summit in Krasnoyarsk, Russian President Boris Yeltsin indicated to Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto that he could be willing to cede the Kuril Islands. The negotiating was left to Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who co-chaired the Russia-Japan bilateral commission. Nemtsov viewed the territorial concession as a disaster because it would give the communists and nationalists in the Russian parliament ammunition to impeach Yeltsin, and used his mandate to sabotage the deal, formulating the proposal in a way that ensured its rejection by the Japanese.
There is an inescapable irony in the fact that Nemtsov, Putin’s main political opponent who was denounced by the Kremlin propaganda as a “traitor,” defended Russian sovereignty over a territory that Putin, the supposed architect of a strong Russia, could soon be giving away. This would not be the first time the Kremlin’s distorted reality conflicts with the truth – nor would this be the first transfer of Russian land on Putin’s watch. In 2004 and 2015 the Kremlin ceded territories in Russia’s Khabarovsk and Primorye regions to China – a total of some 132 square miles. “[Putin] attacks those who are weaker, as he did with Ukraine when it was paralyzed after [President Viktor] Yanukovych’s escape,” said Vladimir Milov, a Russian opposition politician and former deputy minister of energy. “When it comes to strong countries like China or Japan, Putin lies on his back and is ready to bargain.”
The Kremlin’s television machine will do its best to present the transfer of the Kuril Islands in a light favorable to Vladimir Putin. But the power of propaganda is not absolute. Putin’s recent pension reform, which raised the retirement age, was not well received by Russians, despite the best efforts of the Kremlin’s media. Political analysts are already warning that the ceding of a long-disputed Russian territory to Japan could deal a “death blow” to the regime’s nationalist base of support.