Written by Miha Hribernik.

Russo-Japanese relations have grown closer over the past two years, before the Ukrainian crisis began to strain Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s carefully-crafted Russia policy. By summer 2014, Abe’s delicate balancing act – manoeuvring Japan between the interests of its Western partners and those of energy-rich Russia – came close to collapse as Moscow held two major military exercises near Japan. On 12 August, over a thousand Russian troops took part in a drill on the Kuril Islands. Between 19 and 25 September, the ‘Vostok 2014’ exercise in Kamchatka assembled over 100,000 servicemen, 1,500 tanks and 120 aircraft in Russia’s largest display of force since the Cold War.

Both Russian military drills – and their proximity to Japan – are a sign of cooling relations between Moscow and Tokyo. The recent rapprochement between both states under the Abe administration owed much to Japan’s growing energy insecurity after the 2011 Tohoku disaster. Russia, in turn, was eager to help fill the energy gap left by the closure of Japan’s nuclear power plants. Even after Russia’s occupation of Crimea in March, Japan maintained a more careful stance than its US ally, calling on both sides – Russians and Ukrainians alike – to exercise restraint. After the downing of flight MH17 in July and mounting evidence of Russian involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, Japan had to act. It followed its Western partners in introducing sanctions against Russia.

A slump in Russo-Japanese relations is hardly a unique occurrence in the post-Cold War era, marked by oscillations between (relatively promising) talks and heightened tensions. The aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis may well portend a new long-term chill in bilateral ties. However, Putin and Abe are just as likely to take a step back and focus on the big picture: Japan is in need of energy resources while Russia’s struggling economy needs money from energy exports. Japan already receives a tenth of its crude imports from Russia, which is a lifeline it can ill afford to sever.

Even so, while the bilateral relationship may soon continue as usual and both countries may be eager to mend fences, the renewed tensions are almost certain to carry with them at least one long-term consequence: This time around, they could unravel the fragile progress made toward the resolution of the Kuril Islands dispute. This group of four islands and rocks[1] (known as the Northern Territories in Japan) was occupied by the Soviet Union in August and September 1945, during the last days of World War II in the Asia-Pacific. The islands have remained under de facto Russian rule ever since. Japan never abandoned its claim to the Kuril Islands, which have remained a thorn in Russo-Japanese relations throughout the post-war period.

Their unresolved status prevented the signing of a peace accord between the Soviet Union and Japan, even though the failed 1956 declaration – that would have returned the islands of Iturup/Etorofu and Kunashir/Kunashiri to Japan – came close to resolving the dispute. With both countries technically still at war, Mikhail Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader to visit Japan during the Union’s final months in 1991. Boris Yeltsin was slated to visit Tokyo as the first president of independent Russia a year later, but cancelled his trip just four days before, owing to a gridlock in Russo-Japanese negotiations over the future of the islands.

The issue of the Kurils remains unresolved to this day. Even though it rarely captured international headlines, the question of the islands’ future never went away and continued to be discussed throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, without much success. Although both sides are ostensibly considering compromise, public opinion and domestic political wrangling prevented them from ever again approaching an agreement like the one in 1956.

Despite the lack of tangible progress – and occasional sabre-rattling from Russia – the Kuril Islands were perhaps the most promising of all the territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific, as a recent article in The Diplomat argues. Indeed, despite the permanent stationing of Russian troops on the islands, and occasional violations of Japanese airspace, few Asia watchers would place the Kuril Islands at the top of their list of territorial disputes most likely to end up in a military confrontation. After Abe assumed office in 2012, and struck up a personal rapport with Putin, some even believed that a compromise might finally be in the cards. In September 2013, Russia and Japan hinted at the possibility of signing a peace treaty and finally putting the issue to rest. Even at the height of the Ukraine crisis this May, Putin still paid lip-service to the idea of talks.

By August, it appeared that Putin had decided to reverse course and reprimand Japan for supporting the Western sanctions against Russia. The choice of Russia’s Eastern Military District for two major military exercises in the space of a month was no coincidence. Apart from serving as a show of force to NATO and the West over the simmering conflict in Ukraine, the drills aimed to signal Tokyo that talks about the future of the Kuril Islands are now firmly off the table. The question is: Could they restart in the foreseeable future, and would they stand a realistic chance?

It seems unlikely, even though diplomatic (and economic) relations could rebound soon. Both leaders have already agreed to meet at the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in November. Abe and Putin may well use the opportunity to set the stage for a ‘return to normal’. The 15 October report that revealed a Russian proposal for a new pipeline connecting its Far East gas fields with northern Japan makes this all the more likely. After all, so-called ‘hot economics, cold politics’ were able to inject some badly needed pragmatism into Sino-Japanese relations for over a decade, and could do the same for the two Northeast Asian neighbours.

This potential rebound, however, bodes ill for the Kuril Islands dispute. With economic and energy interests at stake, it seems unlikely that the sensitive issue of the islands could come up during the November meeting.  The recent Russian military drills may have also stifled any enthusiasm for renewed talks in Tokyo, which has always kept a close eye on the Russian military presence in the Northern Territories.

Finally, even if the necessary political will returns, Abe and Putin will be at the mercy of forces familiar to most of their predecessors, from Yeltsin to Koizumi. In Russia, the Ukrainian crisis unleashed a wave of (state-sanctioned) nationalism that appears to have made its way into every pore of the ruling regime. Putin would face substantial pressure from nationalistic groups and factions within the regime that would vigorously oppose any compromise with Japan. After claiming to come to the aid of fellow Russians in Ukraine, Putin could hardly justify sacrificing a Russian island or two in return for something as ‘trivial’ as Japanese economic deals or concessions. The pressure on Abe would not be much lower, as he would need to contend with hawks within his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that would oppose any compromise, and demand the return of all islands in the Northern Territories.

It seems that 2014 brought about (yet) another setback for the Kuril Islands dispute, with no end in sight. The status quo appears set to continue. The islands will likely stay out of headlines until the issue eventually resurfaces, as it has so many times in the past. Considering the state of other territorial disputes and the prevailing geopolitical tensions in Northeast Asia, that may not be so bad after all.

Miha Hribernik is an analyst at Maplecroft. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Maplecroft. Image Credit: CC by Austronesian Expeditions/Flickr.

Notes:

[1]Their Russian/Japanese names are: Iturup/Etorofu; Kunashir/Kunashiri; Shikotan/Shikotan; Habomai/Habomai.