Russo-Japanese arms race over Kuril Islands

Japan's ongoing dispute with Russia over the Kuril Islands has been heating up since November, when Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to visit the contested archipelago. Medvedev's high-profile trip to Kunashir, second-largest of the four disputed islands, has sparked both a regional military build-up and a diplomatic war of words. The dispute over the islands—called the Northern Territories in Japan but seized by the Soviets in August 1945—has prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a treaty to officially end their World War II hostilities.

Some 7,500 Japanese nationals have volunteered to move to the Kurils to press their nation's claim to the islands, Tokyo's Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara boasted Feb. 12. "Speaking about the four northern islands, historically Russians have never lived there, they were only inhabited by the Japanese," Maehara said in an interview with Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio.

On Feb. 7, Japan's "Northern Territories Day," Prime Minister Naoto Kan told an official rally in Tokyo that Medvedev's visit was an "unforgivable outrage." Feb. 7 was chosen to mark the signing the 1855 Shimoda Treaty under which Japan claims the four islands at issue—Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islet group.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded: "Those expressions are clearly undiplomatic. They contrast sharply with the respectful, positive tone that was characteristic of the meeting between Prime Minister Naoto Kan and President Dmitry Medvedev in Yokohama last autumn." He also accused Tokyo of supporting Japanese nationalist organizations, whose followers reportedly burned a Russian flag during the Tokyo rally. A Northern Territories Day rally was also held in Nemuro, Hokkaido, the town closest to the islands.

Amid the verbal sniping, Medvedev ordered the deployment of additional weapons to the islands, describing them as a "strategic region" of Russia, and accusing Japan of a military build-up in Hokkaido. Maehara responded by saying that Tokyo's resolve "remains absolutely unwavering." Moscow is now threatening to send the high-tech Mistral helicopter-carrier assault ships it is buying from France to protect the Kurils. Russia is also planing to build a military heliport on Etorofu. (Moscow Times, Feb. 13; RIA-Novosti, Feb. 12; Mainichi Japan, Feb. 11; BBC News, The Economist, UPI, Feb. 7)

The Kurils are a chain of 56 mostly uninhabited volcanic islands, extending for 1,200 kilometers from the south tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula to northeast Hokkaido. The Soviet Union seized southern Sakhalin Island and the Kurils in the closing days of World War II, but Japan maintains a claim to the four southernmost islands of Kunashir, Etorofu (Iturup to the Russians), Shikotan, and the Habomai rocks. The Kurils guard the strategic strait (La Perouse) linking the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk, as well as providing a line of defense between the Sea of Okhotsk and the open Pacific Ocean. Russia has already built a military base on Shikotan island, while also placing border forces on the other islands. The islands hold vast mineral wealth, with an estimated 160 million tons of natural gas.

Moscow says the 1855 treaty that divided the Kurils between Russia and Japan has long since been nullified. Japan ceded Sakhalin Island to Russia in exchange for the entirety of the Kurils in the 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg, but was nonetheless granted the southern half of Sakhalin under the Portsmouth Treaty that ended the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. Moscow additionally claims that Japan officially recognized both Sakhalin and the Kurils as Soviet territory upon surrender in 1945.

The Japanese fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor was assembled in the Kurils, which were also the scene of the last major combat of World War II. Neither Russia nor Japan has expressed interest in recognizing the territorial claims of the islands' Ainu indigenous people. (Moscow Times, Feb. 13; CNTV, Voice of Russia, Feb. 12; UPI, Feb. 7; Kurile Islands Dispute page at Inventory of Conflict & Environment)

See our last posts on Japan, Russia, the Kuril Islands dispute, and the long shadow of World War II.

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