The Southern Kuril Islands Dispute

The annual PONARS Eurasia conference is coming up this Friday in DC. I will be giving a presentation on the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands. Here’s the text of my memo, which can also be found in pdf on the conference website.


The dispute between Russia and Japan over the southern Kuril Islands represents one of the longest standing territorial disputes in East Asia. The dispute concerns possession of the four southernmost islands in the chain, Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai.[1] This dispute has recently returned to the headlines in the aftermath of a visit to one of the islands by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, a move that drew condemnation from leading Japanese officials.

Russia and Japan have traded possession of the Kuril Islands and SakhalinIsland since they first established diplomatic relations in 1855. In that year, the Treaty of Shimoda assigned possession of the northern Kuril Islands to Russia, while Japan received the four southernmost islands. Sakhalin itself was administered as a joint condominium until the 1875 Treaty of St. Petersburg assigned the entire island to Russian possession in exchange for Japan receiving the entire Kuril Islands chain up to the Kamchatka Peninsula. The Russo-Japanese border shifted again after Russia’s defeat in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war. The Treaty of Portsmouth that concluded the war gave the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan.

These borders remained stable until the end of World War II. The Soviet Union occupied the entire Kuril Islands chain and southern Sakhalin Island in late August 1945. Soviet possession of these territories was decided during the Yalta summit in 1945, at which time Joseph Stalin promised to attack Japanese forces three months after the conclusion of the war with Germany. The entire population of the four southern Kuril Islands was expelled in 1947 and resettled in northern Japan.

The Japanese Position

Japan first began to raise its claim to the four islands in the 1950s. Initially, only the smaller Shikotan and Habomai were claimed. As late as 1956, Japanese negotiators reached an agreement with their Soviet counterparts to settle the dispute by transferring Shikotan and Habomai to Japanese control while simultaneously renouncing all claims to the much larger Kunashiri and Etorofu.[2] This deal was scuttled as a result of pressure by the United States, which threatened to keep control of Okinawa if Japan accepted this compromise.[3] In the end, the two sides signed a joint declaration that ended the state of war that had existed between the Soviet Union and Japan since 1945 but postponed the resolution of the territorial dispute until the conclusion of a formal peace treaty between the two states. Since the early 1960s, however, the Japanese government has unwaveringly claimed all four islands to be Japanese territory.

Since the end of the Cold War, Japan has sought to expand its cooperation with Russia, in part because it hoped that better overall relations would result in a favorable settlement of the territorial dispute. During the difficult years immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Japan began to provide humanitarian assistance to Russian residents living on the disputed islands. Since 1991, residents of the disputed territories have been allowed visa-free travel to Japan in exchange for similar privileges granted to former Japanese residents of the islands and their families.

At the same time, Japan has in recent years taken a number of actions that have shown unwillingness to compromise on its official position. In July 2009, the Japanese parliament adopted a law stating that the southern Kuril Islands are Japanese territory that has been unlawfully occupied by Russia. After President Medvedev visited Kunashiri in November 2010, Japan filed a protest with the Russian government and temporarily recalled its ambassador from Moscow. The government also protested subsequent visits to the islands by senior Russian officials. While protests on Northern Territories Day (February 11) are an annual occurrence, in 2011 protesters desecrated the Russian flag in front of the Russian embassy in Tokyo while the Japanese Prime Minister declared President Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri an “unpardonable rudeness.”

However, Japanese leaders have increasingly come to understand that they need to establish a cooperative relationship with Russia on a broad range of issues separate from the Northern Territories dispute. Japan badly needs to diversify its energy supply sources and increasingly sees Russia as a necessary ally that could help to prevent Chinese domination of East Asia. Japan has sought to gain access to Russian gas and oil exports from fields in Siberia and Sakhalin, amid concern that pipelines may be built that send the energy resources to China instead. Both countries see China as a rising power that potentially needs to be balanced and have sought to deepen their security relationship to address the changing security dynamics in East Asia. In 2011, Japanese leaders announced they would be willing to consider participating in joint economic activities in the southern Kurils, provided that such activities did not negatively affect Japan’s claims to the disputed territories. Japan’s leaders have thus recognized that the chances for solving the territorial dispute are quite low and have resolved to bracket the dispute while developing other aspects of the bilateral relationship.

The Russian Position

When he first came to power, Vladimir Putin sought to solve the dispute with Japan by negotiating on the basis of the 1956 declaration. This was the first official recognition by the Russian side since that year that they might be willing to return some of the islands as part of a negotiated solution. However, the Japanese government rejected this overture, insisting that it was only willing to negotiate the timing of the transfer of all four islands to Japanese control and therefore could not base the negotiations on a declaration that called for the transfer of two of the four islands to Japan while allowing Russia to retain the other two. At the same time, Russia became much stronger politically and economically and was much less in need of the assistance that Japan had always held out as a carrot in exchange for the return of its Northern Territories. As a result, Russian leaders became far more reluctant to endorse even the compromise two-island solution that they had promoted during Putin’s first term.

Beginning in 2005, Russian officials have generally argued that the islands belong to Russia and that Japan has to accept Russian sovereignty over all four islands before any discussions can begin. Russia has said it is open to a negotiated “solution“ to the island dispute while declaring that the legality of its own claim to the islands is not open to question. In other words, Japan would first have to recognize Russia’s right to the islands and then try to acquire some or all of them through negotiations.

During Vladimir Putin’s second presidential term, the Russian government began to undertake a number of concerted measures to strengthen Russia’s hold on the islands. The first step was the adoption of a special federal program for the economic development of the islands. The program earmarked 18 billion rubles for various infrastructure development projects on the islands to be completed between 2007 and 2015. To ensure its security in the region, the Russian government has recently taken steps to strengthen the islands’ defenses. To this end, it is planning to modernize the equipment used by the 18th artillery division, which is based primarily on Kunashiri. Analysts do not expect the dispute to result in armed conflict but do believe that the strengthening of the disputed territories’ defenses will show Russia’s resolve to keep possession of the islands and may convince Japan to focus on other aspects of the bilateral relationship.[4]

The primary reason that Russian leaders insist on keeping possession of the islands has to do with conceptions of national honor and the sense that a handover would be seen by both the international community and by the Russian population as an admission of weakness. However, there are also a number of more practical considerations that have pushed the Russian government into a more uncompromising position. The islands and their territorial waters possess a great deal of economic value for their mineral resources, which include offshore hydrocarbon deposits, gold, silver, iron, and titanium. Etorofu is also the only source in Russia of the rare metal rhenium, which has important uses in electronics. The islands are also able to supply enough geothermal energy to meet its entire annual heating needs. The waters off the southern Kurils are the location of an upwelling that makes the area an exceptionally rich source for fish and seafood production, worth an estimated 4 billion dollars a year. Russian leaders also believe they could turn the region into a profitable tourism center, though this seems somewhat dubious given its remoteness and lack of appropriate infrastructure.[5]

Russian leaders also see possession of the southern Kurils as playing an important role in defense planning. The islands control access to the Sea of Okhotsk and thereby allow the Russian Pacific Fleet free access to the Pacific Ocean. The deep channels between the southern Kuril Islands allow Russian submarines to transit to the open ocean underwater. Russian military planners have argued that the loss of these channels would reduce the effectiveness of the Russian Pacific Fleet and thereby reduce Russian security in the region.[6]

Russia’s current position on the dispute has much in common with that of Japan. Russia is not particularly interested in making serious concessions on the territorial dispute, but it would like to further develop the bilateral relationship in other spheres, particularly trade and joint development of Russian energy resources. Russia is also concerned about the rapid increase in Chinese economic and political power and would like to work with Japan to constrain Chinese influence.

Potential Solutions

A number of potential solutions to the conflict have been proposed over time. Most of these proposals have come from scholars, although until recently the Russian government was also willing to compromise. Traditional solutions have focused on the number of islands or amount of territory that would be transferred as part of a compromise agreement. The Russian government has periodically offered to transfer the two southernmost islands, while offering to include Japan in efforts to jointly develop the other two islands. From the Japanese point of view, this offer does not seem very equitable, since the two islands that would remain in Russian possession comprise 93 percent of the disputed territory’s total land area. The Japanese scholar Akihiro Iwashita notes, however, that the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) commanded by Habomai and Shikotan is quite large and rich in marine resources. Depending on how the boundary is demarcated, the total territory handed over (including maritime territory) could reach half the size of the total EEZ of the four disputed islands (see Figure 1).

Figure 1.  The Northern Territories’ EEZ

Source: Brad Williams, “Dissent on Japan’s Northern Periphery: Nemuro, the Northern Territories and the Limits of Change in a ‘Bureaucrat’s Movement,’” Japanese Journal of Political Science 11(2), p. 232. Adapted from Akihiro Iwashita, Hoppo Ryodo Mondai: 4 demo 0 demo, 2 demonaku (Chuko Shinsho, 2005), p. 165.

Japanese scholars and a few politicians have recently sought to promote various proposals that include the transfer of Kunashiri and in some cases part of Etorofu to Japanese control. These proposals have collectively been labeled “the 50/50 plan.” These proposals have received the support of a sizeable number of former Japanese residents of the disputed islands and their descendants. Surveys show that both former islanders and other Japanese strongly oppose any solution that would compel Japan to renounce its claims to Etorofu and Kunashiri, but they are willing to accept solutions that are far more flexible than the Japanese government’s current all-or-nothing negotiating position.

At the moment, most Japanese and Russians prefer the continuation of the status quo to territorial compromise. As long as this situation persists, the possibility of a successful negotiated solution is very low. Given the situation on the ground, the ball is entirely in Japan’s court, as Russia holds the territory and therefore has an advantage. Russian leaders have repeatedly made clear that the transfer of all four islands to Japan will never happen. The only way for any progress to be made is for Japan to take the quite radical step (by internal political standards) of dropping its insistence on an all or nothing solution and offering to negotiate the exact parameters of territorial compromise. This would move the ball to Russia’s court as the Russian government would face pressure to confirm its willingness to actually give up territory. Given that Russia has previously on several occasions declared its willingness to give up two islands, it may be difficult for Russian leaders to stick to their recent statements that the southern Kuril Islands are indisputably Russian territory and not subject to negotiation. If they feel confident enough to reiterate their willingness to give up two islands, that would create an opportunity to enter into negotiations over the exact parameters of the territorial compromise, whether this ends up being two islands, three islands, or some version of the 50/50 plan.

However, such a compromise is actually extremely unlikely. The initial move would require a strong Japanese leader to break with decades of precedent and be willing to take on the concerted criticism that is sure to come from Japanese nationalists. Given the long-term weakness and instability exhibited by the Japanese political system over the last two decades, there is a very low probability that such a leader might emerge any time in the foreseeable future. If such a leader did emerge, he would have to expend a great deal of political capital to shift the preferences of the Japanese people and political elites.

There is also the possibility of a non-traditional solution, such as joint sovereignty by both countries over all or some of the four disputed islands. Such a solution would allow the two countries to focus on joint economic development projects in the region, rather than arguing about territorial delimitation. However, such a solution would require Russian willingness to withdraw its military from the four islands. This move would have to be combined with guarantees of major Japanese investment in Russian energy development or other economic incentives.

Such a compromise is as unlikely to be reached as the more traditional solutions based on a formal division of the disputed territory between the two sides. The strength of nationalist attitudes on both sides makes it very difficult for political leaders to stand down from the maximalist positions they have adopted for years. Nationalists in Japan have fiercely attacked both academics and politicians who have broached the merest hint of compromise on the government’s long-standing all or nothing position. While Russian nationalists are not as powerful an interest group as their Japanese counterparts, they have previously protested against Russian territorial concessions to China made in 2004. While at that time, Vladimir Putin had broad popularity among the Russian public and could dismiss such protests as irrelevant, the Putin regime now faces a great deal of popular discontent and may find itself less willing to alienate one of its core remaining constituencies.

The change in the Putin regime’s circumstances in the last few years points to a second reason that makes compromise unlikely. The political elites in both countries are relatively weak and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Numerous large protests opposing Vladimir Putin’s stage-managed return to the presidency revealed a widespread sense of discontent with the Russian president, reducing his ability both to make unpopular political decisions and to shift the public discourse in favor of new initiatives. The Japanese government has been weakened by two decades of slow economic growth and popular discontent with widespread corruption among political and business elites. The result has been a revolving-door cabinet, with no prime minister serving for longer than fifteen months since 2006 and only one serving a full term since 1989. Last year’s tsunami and subsequent nuclear reactor meltdown at Fukushima further reduced confidence in the government among the Japanese public. The consequence of this lack of trust and government weakness is that Japanese leaders are not likely to take a significant risk on an unpopular foreign policy initiative such as compromising on claims to the Northern Territories.

With neither the Russian nor Japanese leadership in a position to take the political risks that would be necessary to resolve the dispute, the status quo is virtually certain to continue for the foreseeable future. However, this will not prevent the two states from continuing to strengthen their relationship in other spheres, as both sides seek to protect themselves from the economic and political consequences of China’s rapid emergence as the preeminent East Asian power. As trade in energy expands and bilateral security cooperation deepens in the coming years, the territorial dispute left over from World War II will become increasingly irrelevant to both the governments and the public. This development could in turn allow for a compromise solution to emerge ten to twenty years down the road.

[1]  The Russian names for the first two islands are Iturup and Kunashir. I use the Japanese names for the sake of consistency.

[2]  Gregory Clark, “Northern Territories dispute highlights flawed diplomacy,” The Japan Times Online, March 24, 2005,

[3]  James E. Goodby, Vladimir I. Ivanov, Nobuo Shimotomai, “’Northern territories’ and beyond: Russian, Japanese, and American Perspectives,” Praeger Publishers, 1995.

[4]  See, for example, Andrei Kisliakov, “Iuzhnym Kurilam Obeshchanna Usilennaia Oborona,” Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrennie, April 22, 2011; Ilya Kramnik, “Kurilskii Pretsedent,” VPK: Voenno-Promyshlennyi Kur’er, March 2, 2011; Ilya Kramnik, “Kurily: Prognoz Politicheskoi Nepogody,” Golos Rossii, February 21, 2011.

[5]  A. Koshkin, “Rossiia i Iaponiia: Vozmozhen li Kompromis o Kurilakh,” Aziia i Afrika Segodnia, November 2008, p. 32.

[6]  Kisliakov; Koshkin, p. 32.

14 thoughts on “The Southern Kuril Islands Dispute

  1. Interesting post, thank you for posting.
    What I would add to it is a comment about the Georgian conflict of 08 08 08.
    That was about disputed territory too, and clearly came as a total shock to the Russian Government.

    Before that Georgian attack there was mostly talk about money for the military, but after it seemed that the actual upgrade and overhaul actually really started.

    Money started to be spent on new stuff.

    The purchase of the Mistrals did not come from no where… after being surprised at Saakashvilis stupidity and rashness in attacking South Ossetia, I am sure the Russian Government realised how vulnerable the Kurile Islands would be if a Japanese leader decided to improve his political standing by mounting a similar raid on the northern territories.

    The realisation that the far east has been neglected perhaps made them realise how the entire military machine had been neglected and mobilised them into action.

    The first two Mistrals are going to the Far East.

    You will need to make it clear however that there is to be no invasion of Japan, this move is not to start something, but to prevent it from starting.

    I suspect the Russian government realised the neglect of the Far East could lead to a Japanese attempt to retake land in the region, and the neglect might lead to the locals actually supporting that in hopes of a brighter future.

    To preempt that they are allocating resources to the region to make it much less likely, just like they replaced the T-62s in South Ossetia with T-90s to prevent a replay.

    The blind US support for Georgia, would have been repeated in the Kurile Islands dispute… Russia knows only a strong military force can ensure there is no armed conflict there, because the US will block and undermine any international support for Russia on this issue.

  2. Dear Dr. Gorenburg

    Russia has been involved in a secret lawsuit about conspiracy with a terrorist suspect in the International Court of Justice for 4 years, and it is very possible that this dispute of territories with Japan has been subsumed in this court case for resolution. You might hear about this court case next year from your contacts in the Russian government.

    I cannot disagree more with Gary B. Georgia is a completely different story than Japan. Japan will never attack Russia; that would result in nuclear war, because Japanese weaponry is too advanced and Japanese public has a terrible aversion toward “invading foreign territories”. Secondly, Saakashvilis invaded South Ossetia only because Condolezza Rice personally came to him in August 2008 and told him that Russia will not fight back if he invades Ossetia: It’s unlikely that the US will ever send a guarantee to Japan ensuring that Russia will not respond to a Japanese invasion.

  3. Georgia was a wake up call for the politicians in Russia.
    They had thought they knew where all the problems were and did not anticipate Saakashvili to be so irrational.
    After that sort of scare, I think it is natural for them to look around their borders for other potential disputes and they probably realised how vulnerable the Kuriles are.

    I agree that Japan is too rational to risk an attack, but you said it yourself, they are too rational to try to take someone elses land.

    What about reclaiming land they believe to be theirs by right?

    Japanese vessels are currently being used in a dispute over other islands right now.

    An earthquake, a poor economy, a nuclear disaster, an unpopular government… what other ingredients can be put into the mix that might make some desparate politician do something stupid.

    The US has already made it pretty clear they support Japan in the issue no matter what the facts.

    They have in fact made it pretty clear that they will support almost any country that has a dispute with Russia no matter what the facts of the matter are..

    In Georgia there were plenty of local Russian volunteers who were prepared to go and fight Georgia.

    What sort of response would there be in the neglected Far East.

    Certainly some might even welcome the Japanese in return for real economic attention.

    I am not suggesting the Japanese would attack the northern territories… remember they describe them as occupied territory so for them it would be liberation of stolen land.

    I am suggesting that the Russian politicians have realised that having a functioning armed force is critical in this day and age and the Russian military has simply be ignored for far too long.

    After 2008 the money started actually being spent, changes were made, helicopter carriers were ordered, and a new commitment to develop the Far East was made and repeated.

    It probably would have happened eventually, but the surprise attack on South Ossetia was the kick start to the process being seen as urgent rather than just a to do thing.

    Of course you are perfectly entitled to disagree. 🙂

  4. Why doesn’t Russia just *sell* them to Japan & call it even? Are they really concerned about given up the ‘strategic depth’ of some frozen, crap-covered islands?

    Heck, Jimmy Carter gave Okinawa to Japan 40 years ago, and who cares?

  5. Why doesn’t the US just give California and Texas back to Mexico, or Alaska back to Russia?
    Very few countries will give away land they control for no tangible benefit.

    Russia doesn’t need Japans money right now, perhaps in the 1990s, but not now.

    Ask NATO how useful it is to have listening stations in the Baltic states right next to Russia, and consider the double advantage for Russia to not only have listening stations near Japan, but to also keep Japanese listening stations further from their bases.

    The reality though is that possession of the Islands gives Russia better access to the Pacific Fleet from Vladivostok, and it gives them ownership of a larger area of sea, that because of the tidal currents in the region is generally rich in marine life.

    • Don’t wet your lady-pants, Gary. “Sell” it to them. A tangible benefit.

      And ‘yes’, I’d be more than happy to sell the sick-man California to the first willing bidder. Anyone?…

      And unless you are wholely ignorant on the topic, Russia doesn’t ‘need’ listening stations on thos islands anymore than you ‘need’ a 3rd arm to take a leak.

      Here’s an opportunity(!) for Russia to actually demonstrate real international leadership by resolving a territorial dispute peacefully, at essentially no cost to the Motherland.

      And when it’s all over, you’ll still have 11+ timezones of territory.

      • There is no need to get personal.

        Islands in the region have changed hands repeatedly over the last few centuries.

        The Russian claim to own them is valid.

        To offer to sell them would hardly work as this would require Japan to acknowledge that Russia legitimately owns them to be able to sell them in the first place.

        The fishing in the area is good and is not fished out like other areas around Japan, and the potential mineral and energy wealth means Russia should not consider selling them.

        Giving away territory isn’t what got the US its global position, and that sort of thing didn’t work for the British Empire either.

        I am sure America will say that Russias standing in the international community will improve if they sell these islands, and they will probably say it will improve if Russia abandons Serbia and recognises Kosovo, and of course its international standing would climb to previously unheard of levels of they will just sign off on a UN no fly zone over Syria… just the same as they said that Russia would be welcomed into the international community if it gave up communism and became a democratic state.

        They have offered to meet Japan half way and offer two islands but Japan has already rejected such a compromise.

        There is no urgency in the dispute, no urgent need to settle anything.

        I rather suspect most Japanese could care less about those barren islands anyway.

  6. Gary B., no Mistrals have been delivered and I doubt any ever will. The program will go the way of the joint carrier program with the Royal Navy, subsumed on the public face by some irreconcilable contract dispute, but in reality buried by the broad and determined opposition of other NATO nations

  7. I suspect you are confusing the Russian government with the UK government.

    Every time the British military goes abroad and does a professional job for those thankless politicians their reward has been downsizing and budget cuts.

    The Russian politicians have been neglecting their military for 20 odd years with promises.

    This changed in 2008 when money was actually forthcoming.

    The only reason the first two Mistrals will not be delivered would be a failure of French shipbuilding yards to do a proper job… and I don’t see that happening myself.

    The contracts for the first two vessels are signed AFAIK.

    The development of the navalised Ka-52 attack helo as a naval attack aircraft is in motion and the Ka-29 naval troop carrier aircraft are also being ordered too.

    The only real question left is what sort of landing machanism they want to rely on, the Murena hovercraft landing vessels are too big apparently, but the Serna and Dugong landing craft will probably get the job done fine.

    France really has no history of being bullied by other NATO nations as to whom it can or cannot sell its weapons to… In fact I would think they would enjoy it.

    At the end of the day it is just a helicopter barge. There are some sophisticated systems on board but nothing that would make any difference in a nuclear war.

  8. I should add that the last of the class called Ivan Rogov, which was their only large ocean going landing ship able to carry more than just 2 helos was retired recently, so they currently have a gap.

    They have a substantial capability in naval infantry forces without large landing ships to use them on.

    They have stated the first two Mistrals will go to the Pacific Fleet to help safeguard the Kuriles, and the other two Mistrals will go to the Northern Fleet and they have mentioned creating mobile modern arctic forces, so it sounds like they have pretty clear uses for all the ships to me.

  9. This sounds like a great presentation, Dr. Gorenburg, and I wish I could have heard it. It seems to me extremely fair to both sides, and while it does not really present anything heretofore undiscovered about the agreements known to exist, it does nail them down in compelling detail. Japan renounced claim to the Kurils – in the Diet, no less – and international law is on Russia’s side. Not that you’d ever know it, from the U.S;s support of Japan’s argument, naturally.

    The Kurils lie in an area that may one day be rich sources of oil deposits, and at present provide extremely rich fishing grounds right next to a nation that cannot seem to get enough fish. Additionally, yielding them to Japan in whatever sort of transaction would be an invitation for the USA to establish a base there, which was a top priority at the end of World War II. That would allow a foreign nation to man Russia’s gate between the Sea of Okhotsk and open ocean. For these reasons, Russia will not “sell” the islands to Japan. Besides, Japan surrendered as a result of the war, and countries which do so have no right to previous sovereign territory, even if that had been an argument that stood a chance of going anywhere. Its disposition is at the pleasure of the victors.

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  11. In my opinion, Russians will never let the islands go and I think they should hold onto them for economical and strategical reasons.

    Some traces of the Japanese era past can still be found on some of the islands though (such as: tombstones, old and almost demolished post office, etc.), and I hope the Russians could open up a little bit more to allow Japanese to visit the islands. Actually the Southern Kuril have a hidden tourism potential and could develop in this direction, albeit under strict eco-regulations.

    Northern Japan was initially occupied by Ainu people (who were also established on Sakhalin and maybe even as far as the Northern Kuril). When establishing its boundaries in the North-East, the Japanese never had much more than a trading relationship with the Ezo (now Hokkaido) region. But the Russians were also making their way in the Eastern side of their huge country, and the need to establish a clear boundary between the two countries soon arised. The position of the Japanese at the time seemed to be “Hokkaido, Kunashiri, Etorofu, the Habomai and Shikotan belong to Japan because people living on these islands are Japanese”… thus triggering an unfortunate assimilation of Ainu people (indigenous people of Hokkaido) to the Japanese people.

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