Feb 18, 2019 | 20:31 GMT

3 mins read

Japan, Russia: A Kuril Island Agreement Gets a Little Smaller on the Horizon

The Big Picture

Conflicting claims to the Kuril Islands continue to prevent Japan and Russia from officially ending their World War II hostilities. Stratfor's 2019 Annual Forecast said that while talks on the islands would continue, the standoff between Russia and the West would block a deal. A renewed emphasis on compromise and a peace talk framework increase the chances of a breakthrough, but negotiations are likely to struggle now that neither side is emphasizing a clear deadline.

What Happened

Russia appears to be pouring cold water on Japan's hopes to seal a World War II-era peace deal and resolve their longstanding dispute over the Kuril Islands. On Feb. 17 following a sideline meeting at the Munich Security Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had told his Japanese counterpart that Moscow has no fixed timeline for reaching such agreements. Lavrov added that Russia maintains the position that it legitimately annexed the southern Kurils, known in Japan as the Northern Territories, at the end of World War II and called for Japan to acknowledge this. (Japan has said the annexation was illegal.) But though his statements suggest it may not produce progress on the Kurils, Lavrov and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono resolved to hold another meeting in Japan that will be scheduled in the near future.

Lavrov's statements come just days after Japanese media leaks suggested Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had told his officials in January that it was impossible to reach a deal with Russia by June.

Why It Matters

The odds have always been low that Russia and Japan would make major progress on resolving their thorny territorial dispute during 2019. Still, in late 2018, Japan appeared intent on reaching a compromise by June 2019. Abe wants to cement his legacy before his tenure ends in 2021, so an agreement is by no means impossible. But Russia's apparent pessimism suggests that longstanding obstacles remain in the way.

Tokyo's hopes for a rapprochement with Moscow aren't dead in the water, but reaching an agreement on the Kuril Islands won't be smooth sailing.


The dispute has lingered since 1945, but Abe has made his efforts at resolution a hallmark of his tenure. These efforts, however, have long been hamstrung by tensions between Russia and the United States, Japan's closest ally, and disagreements on numerous thorny details. Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared to chart a new course in November 2018, when the pair agreed to new peace negotiations based on the framework of a 1956 declaration. The terms stipulated that Russia would hand over the smallest of the southern Kurils, Habomai and Shikotan, to Japan after their long-delayed peace treaty was concluded. The fate of the remaining southern Kurils, Etorofu and Kunashiri, would then be left for later discussion.

Since agreeing to the framework, however, Putin has faced a backlash from lawmakers and public polling, including a Jan. 28 poll that indicated 77 of Russians disapproved of a territorial handover. And on Feb. 5, Lavrov emphasized Russian concerns over Japan's alliance with the United States, saying that Washington's departure from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty complicated the Kurils issue. What's more, Russia has condemned Japanese plans to deploy the Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Tokyo's hopes for a rapprochement with Moscow aren't dead in the water, but reaching an agreement on the Kuril Islands won't be smooth sailing. 

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