On August 8, 1945, two days after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and hours before Nagasaki was obliterated, the USSR declared war on Japan. When Operation August Storm was unleashed by a Red Army hardened by four years of war against Nazi Germany it rolled through the rotted husk of the Japanese Kwantung Army. When the smoke settled some 84,000 Japanese troops were dead, another 640,000 were swallowed by the Soviet Gulag, well over half of which died in captivity. The city of Harbin was given to the Red Army for three days of “rape and pillage.” Part of the theater included the Kuril Islands. They were invaded on August 18, 1945 and fell in short order. Like so much other territory that fell under Soviet control by virtue of the end of World War II, they were loathe to leave it. Without getting into all the details, the ownership of some of the islands in the chain is disputed.
Over the years, there have been a host of diplomatic attempts by both sides to determine who has legal sovereignty over the islands. Unfortunately, the two remain at loggerheads and firmly entrenched in their positions which are muddied by a series of historical treaties dating back to 1855. Tokyo claims that the sovereignty of the Northern Territories (referred to as Southern Kurils by Russia) has never been debatable and that the four disputed islands have been part of Japan since the early 19th century. This is confirmed, according to Japan, by— among other treaties— the Shimoda Treaty of 1855 and the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905 at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese war. For its part, Russia pays little heed to Japan’s claims on the islands, instead pointing to a number of international treaties—including the Yalta Agreement (1945) and Potsdam Declaration (1945)— as proof of its sovereignty. Russia also emphasizes that the 1951 San Francisco Treaty serves as legal evidence that Japan acknowledged Russian sovereignty over the islands, a claim Tokyo vehemently denies.
Today, Russia announced that it was conducting military exercises not only in the Kurils but on the islands claimed by Japan.
Russia started military exercises in the remote far east of the country, prompting protests from neighboring Japan at a time when its troops are also active in eastern Europe and on the Ukrainian border.
The drills in the Kuril islands started yesterday with more than 1,000 troops, five helicopters and about 100 pieces of equipment, state-run new service RIA Novosti reported, citing Alexander Gordeyev, a regional spokesman for Russia’s Defense Ministry. Japan, which also claims the islands as its Northern Territories, called the drills “absolutely unacceptable,” according to a statement from the Foreign Ministry.
This probably should be viewed through the lens of the conflict in Ukraine. Japan has joined the United States and Europe in applying sanctions to Russia as a consequence of its increasingly erratic and hostile behavior. Like the current Russian military exercises on the border of NATO members Latvia and Estonia, this is the diplomatic equivalent of a brush-back pitch to intimidate parts of the economic coalition coalescing to challenge Russia’s territorial ambitions.
The exercises cost Russia very little. Negotiations have been held on the fate of these islands since 1951 and Russia seems very unlikely to relinquish control for the sake of better relations with Japan. It is a warning to those who think Putin is looking for a way to gracefully exit the Ukraine conflict that they are engaged in wishful thinking.