Russia-Japan relations are an arena of geopolitics less explored than the headline grabbing contention between the West and Russia.
As neighbours, Japan and Russia have always had an uneasy relationship that has seen many flashpoints including the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war, which changed the very nature of great power conflict and combined arms warfare as we know it.
The defeat of the Russian fleet against an emergent Imperial Japanese Kaigun(Navy) was one of the reasons that plunged Russia into domestic instability that eventually culminated in the Russian Revolution and civil war that followed.
Even after the Bolshevik revolution, the iconic battle at Khalkhingol/Nomonhan had Soviet forces clash with the occupying Japanese Kwantung Army.
Tense relations again culminated in a series of critical actions at the end of the Second World War, when Stalin’s USSR occupied Manchuria and several islands including the Kurils.
Japan and Russia are yet to sign a peace treaty to settle their territorial disputes, even though more than seven decades have passed since the Second World War.
The return of the Kuril Islands territory, or northern territories as Japan likes to call them in colloquial communiqués, is still a matter of hot political debate in both countries, with decades of diplomatic efforts from both sides ultimately coming to nought.
Japan depends heavily on the commercial fishing in the waters around the Kuril Islands which are zealously guarded by the Russian Border Forces. Russia and Japan have formalised a process of quotas of catches for specific species and agreements on the number of Japanese fishing vessels that are allowed to operate in the waters every year.
In recent months, some notable developments have come to light which reflect the Russian side’s unwillingness to settle the matter by returning the islands to Japan.
The first of these developments came in July 2020 with the new constitution of the Russian Federation coming into effect that included a complete restriction on “any alienation of Russian territories”.
This was consolidated further by an amendment signed into law by President Putin on 8 December that includes 6-10 years of imprisonment for individuals in Russia that may be advocating territorial concessions.
Some analysts see this as a reflection of the Russian national psyche, drawing its identity and national pride from the USSR’s victory in the great patriotic war (the Second World War) and the territorial gains that came with it. The parallel argument is that Russia sees implications on the question of Crimea. If it were to concede to Japan on Kuril islands, the international community will have reason to believe they can strong arm Russia into returning the annexed territory to Ukraine.
At least one recognisable name, Colonel Igor Girkin, better known as Strelkov, who also happens to be a major actor in the war in Donbass, publicly protested against any concessions that could be made to the Japanese by the Russian Government.
Another indicator has been Russia’s willingness to match the rhetoric with actual military hardware and boots on the ground in the Kurils.
Recently Tass reported that an S-300V4 multi-layered air defence system was deployed to the islands on combat duty. The system can, to some degree, mitigate the qualitative disadvantages Russian airpower assets suffer against their Japanese counterparts. In response the Japanese Government also registered a diplomatic protest against the deployment of the S-300V4 system.
There are also reports in Russian print media that T72B3 tanks may be deployed to the islands.
The deputy head of the Russian parliamentary defence committee has also gone on record as saying that Russia has the political will and determination to ensure that it will not lose a war against Japan despite its qualitative disadvantages in some areas (which he refused to elaborate on in public). The Japanese response has been to deliberately induct more advanced JASDF platforms to counter Russian numerical superiority in airpower assets.
As Japan and Russia simultaneously spar over the Kuril islands and look for opportunities for cooperation, this journal will attempt to chronicle their important relationship over the next few months.
The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.