Russia’s Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (L) inspects a machine gun regiment during his visit to Iturup Island, one of four islands known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and Northern Territories in Japan, August 22, 2015
The bilateral political ties appear reaching new lows after Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev traveled to the Kuril Islands despite vocal objections from Japan. The Kremlin insisted that the country’s top officials would keep visiting the disputed Southern Kurils despite Japanese protests.
On Aug. 22, Medvedev traveled to Iturup, one of the Kuril Islands. He reiterated that Russian officials “visited, visit and will visit” the Kurils and ordered cabinet members to travel to the islands more frequently. He also described the Kurils as Russia’s gateway to Asia-Pacific.
Medvedev voiced expectations of friendly relations with Japan. Simultaneously, he advocated a deployment of more “modern and combat-ready” troops in the Kurils.
Japanese officials reportedly described the visit as an unacceptable development that would adversely affect bilateral dialogue.
Moscow lashed out at Japanese objections against Medvedev’s visit to the Kurils. This criticism indicates that Japan keeps contesting the results of the World War Two, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Aug. 22.
The Russian Foreign Ministry also dismissed Japanese media reports that Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida delayed a visit to Russia, planned for the end of August. “The talks in Moscow were not announced and it’s impossible to delay what was not agreed upon,” the Foreign Ministry said.
Kishida’s trip to Moscow was understood to be aimed to make preparations for President Vladimir Putin visit to Japan later in 2015. However, it became far from certain whether a bilateral summit meeting could take place this year against a backdrop of the latest developments.
The bilateral relations already dealt a blow after then President Medvedev traveled to Kunashir in November 2010, sparking vocal protests in Tokyo. In 2011, Medvedev also ordered the Russian Defense Ministry to arrange sufficient arms supplies to troops deployed in the Kurils.
Four years ago, the Russian Defense Ministry officials initially denied plans to deploy the advanced S-400 air defense missile systems in the Southern Kurils. But they subsequently confirmed plans to deploy S-400s in the Russian Far East.
With a background of the continued territorial dispute with Japan, the Kremlin also took action to expedite economic development of the Kuril Islands. The earlier program to develop the Kurils till 2015 involved disbursement of some 18 billion rubles ($270 million) in federal and regional grants and subsidies.
Earlier this month, the Russian government approved a new program to develop the Kurils in 2016-2025. The program is expected to cost 70 billion rubles (about $1 billion) in federal and regional grants and subsidies to finance infrastructure development, residential and road construction.
In recent years, Russian officials have urged to develop bilateral trade and economic ties so as to create conditions for signing the peace treaty eventually. But Moscow has been refusing to discuss a return to Japan of four islands, Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai, known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. Moscow has consistently dismissed Japan’s insistence to return all four islands.
Incidentally, on August 22 the Russian government released the decree No 845 to extend the country’s continental shelf into the Okhotsk Sea. The decree, signed by Medvedev, stipulates that some 50,000 square kilometers of seabed in the Okhotsk Sea beyond Russia’s 200-nautical-mile zone should be deemed Russia’s continental. The move was approved by the UN Commission on continental shelves in 2014, following extensive consultations with Japan, according to the Russian government press-service.
In a yet another coincidence, on Aug. 20 seven Chinese naval vessels arrived in Vladivostok for a joint drill. The Russian-Chinese naval exercise, “Naval Interaction 2015 (II) on August 23-27, are aimed to practice joint defense against naval, air and submarine assaults. The joint naval drill by Russia and China, two nations having island-related territorial disputes with Japan, inevitably sends a forceful signal to Tokyo.
The Kremlin seemingly became upset by Japan’s support of the Western sanctions against Moscow. Therefore, Russia apparently decided to take a more hard-line stance on the territorial dispute over the Southern Kurils.
Sergei Blagov is a Moscow-based independent journalist and researcher. In the past three decades, he has been covering Asian affairs from Moscow, Russia, as well as Hanoi, Vietnam and Vientiane, Laos. He is the author of non-fiction books on Vietnam, and a contributor of a handbook for reporters.