Carnegie’s Proposal For Russia To Give Up Kurils – Unrealistic, But Contains Good Ideas on Advancing

 “Russia’s Pacific Future. Solving the South Kuril Islands Dispute" by Carnegie’s Trenin and PhD student Weber makes an unrealistic proposal that Russia give up all 4 of disputed islands doesn’t add value, but incentives (Japanese investment and technologies in exchanging for land) and precedents (German-Russian rapprochement) it outlines are worth familiarizing with.

See key points below with my comments in Italics:

  • The South Kuril Islands issue will not resolve itself or become increasingly irrelevant over time, but Japan’s demands that Russia immediately give up the 4 South Kuril Islands (Shikotan, Habomai, Iturup and Kunashir) are unrealistic.  Agree.
  • For Russia, the South Kuril Islands are more in the league of historical strategic outposts like the naval bases in Port Arthur and the Hanko Peninsula in the Gulf of Finland that were transferred in 1953 to China and 1956 to Finland, respectively.  Not so – possession of 4 islands essentially make the Okhotsk Sea an inner Russian sea – important for fishing and (less for) defense.
  • Russia’s deals with China in 2004 and Norway in 2010 both resulted in Russia’s giving up part of its administered territory or its long-standing legal position, but it is safe to believe that settling the South Kuril Islands issue will not bring about new claims from either China or Norway.  Yes, but Russia’s losses in both cases could not be easily visualized by common public (Russia gave up half Amur river’s riverbed and some of waters of the Barents Sea to Norway, so less sensitive.
  • Moscow should strive for a relationship with Japan that is of the same kind and on the same scale as the one it has successfully built with another of its WWII foe – Germany, which is now Russia’s closest partner and perhaps its best friend among the bigger countries of the West.  Good analogy.
  • Resolution of the dispute would be mutually beneficial:
    • Russia will gain a valuable partner to build up  its underdeveloped eastern provinces and  Japan will help Russia move toward an economy that is not reliant on natural resources—but one that thrives on information technology, space technology, and education. Good ideas.
    • Japan will gain a new ally that will improve its security in Asia. Improvement will be limited.
  • It is important to stress that a Russian-Japanese rapprochement does not constitute an alliance, particularly one against China.  Agree.

Solution: The only conceivable solution is a compromise: Russia must give up more than many Russians think and Japan needs to receive less than most Japanese believe it ought to:

  1. Russia should give up Shikotan and Habomai, that cover 7 percent of the territory claimed by Japan  and that Moscow already agreed to hand over under a joint Soviet-Japanese declaration in 1956.
  2. Japan should support economic activity in the islands and in Russia.
  3. Russia and Japan should establish a joint economic zone, into which Japan will invest.
  4. The entire area needs to be demilitarized, and Russia should initially continue to exercise sovereignty over the other two islands, Iturup and Kunashir.
  5.  In 50 years all of the islands should be integrated into Japan in 50 years, but the joint economic regime will continue for another 50 years and Russian permanent residents will be free to stay on the islands.  What authors are proposing is not a compromise, but rather full acceptance of Japan’s demands for all 4 islands that has no precedent in post-Communist Russia’s history, so unrealistic. I’d say 50%-50% solution or giving 3 smaller islands while keeping Iturup more doable.
  • Declarations from the heads of state or legislatures of Germany and Finland to reaffirm that the resolution formula for the South Kuril Islands issue has no bearing on the status of Kaliningrad and parts of Karelia as legal territories of Russia will also help.  I don’t think either would do so without getting anything in return and it would still set a precedent for Lavtvia and Estonia, which harbor claims, as well as Russia’s own ethnic entities.


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