Japan & Russia
The Vanishing Japan–Russia Island Deal

Will Russia and Japan ever get closer to resolving the Kuril islands dispute? After they failed to make any headway over the weekend, it’s looking increasingly unlikely. After the meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the opportunity to remind the press that Japan once passed over an opportunity to take back two islands. Reuters:

“The Soviet Union received (the islands), the Soviet Union was ready to give back those islands,” Putin told a news conference at the end of a G20 summit in China.

On attempts to settle the dispute now, he said: “There remain issues linked to the economy, to security issues… There are also humanitarian issues. All these issues are the focus of our attention and consideration.”

Heading into the G20 meeting, Abe was reportedly hoping to work with Putin to resolve the Kuril islands dispute. The Diplomat reported that both leaders were getting “serious” about finding a resolution. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later said Russia wasn’t optimistic: “It’s hardly worth expecting any breakthroughs as a result of today’s meeting.” No wonder nothing happened.

For the past few years, we’ve repeatedly caught wind of negotiations between Russia and Japan or of rumors of their imminence. But there’s been no substantive progress. True, it’s easy enough to see why striking a deal might make sense on both sides. Russia and Japan are both wary of China, and getting the Kurils out of the way would help them work together to fend off Chinese aggression. Russia wants more buyers for its oil, and friendlier relations with oil-hungry Japan would be useful. But since rumors about a Kuril deal first started floating around, Abe has seemed to want to make a deal more than Putin has. Maybe that’s because Japan is more worried about China than Russia is, and Putin doesn’t think better relations with Japan are worth conceding a contentious territorial claim and risking a nationalist backlash at home.

Whatever is really going on, the entente between Japan and Russia that international observers have been hoping for doesn’t look imminent. The Kuril islands dispute, which has lasted in its current form since the end of World War II, remains as unresolved as ever.

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