Just weeks before Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to visit Japan for a long-awaited summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Moscow deployed anti-ship missile systems to two of the four disputed Kuril Islands, continuing its yearslong military buildup in the island chain. In its latest addition, the Kremlin sent a Bastion system to Etorofu Island and a Bal system to Kunashiri Island. These systems will enable Russia to project power against naval assets around the islands and help Moscow solidify its control over them.
However, the latest buildup comes as Russia and Japan near a possible compromise on a peace deal stemming from World War II that could include a settlement of the ongoing territorial dispute, which dates back to 1875. The islands, claimed by Japan but controlled by Russia, are part of a larger archipelago stretching from Japan's northern border to the southern tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula that divides the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. The two sides have debated an agreement for 70 years, but lingering Cold War mistrust has prevented them from making much progress.
In recent years, both Moscow's and Tokyo's goals have seemed to align: Russia seeks new alternative energy markets and foreign investment, while Japan searches for new energy suppliers and investment opportunities. Moreover, as Japan’s security concerns to its south have grown more pressing, Tokyo is becoming more interested in securing its northern reaches to free up political and military resources. During Russia’s 2014 standoff with the West, however, Japan imposed sanctions against it, sidelining the negotiations on a peace deal, investments, energy and the islands. Tokyo and Moscow renewed their talks this year, and the upcoming summit is intended to usher in a new understanding between the two countries, with the agenda including the signing of a dozen lucrative deals. Moreover, Japan has shown interest in buying a stake in Russian state oil behemoth Rosneft, which is being privatized, and the two countries are mulling negotiations over a pipeline from Russia to Japan.
Despite the warming relations and increased economic, energy and financial ties, the issue of the islands remains a point of contention. In previous negotiations, Russia showed more flexibility in its willingness to hand over the islands. But since the revolution in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin's popularity at home has rested on its ability to defend the motherland, limiting the room it has to trade sovereign territory. Negotiations over the islands are still ongoing, and a series of options are on the table — the most popular being a deal whereby Russia would relinquish the smallest two islands (Habomai and Shikotan), and perhaps gradually turn over the larger two islands (Etorofu and Kunashiri) in the future. Russia is also keen to secure guarantees that Japan would not station its defense forces on the islands, should they be returned.
Russia’s prolonged military buildup on the two larger islands is aimed at pressing Tokyo’s hand in the negotiations while also assuring the Russian people that Moscow is protecting its territorial integrity. It does not mean a territorial settlement is off the table, since any agreement would have been implemented in stages over a period of years, if not decades. The two sides could find room to compromise on other areas in the meantime. The investment deals are still expected to be signed during Putin’s trip, and concessions could be made on things like visa-free travel or trade zones. But with the Russian state growing more fragile — and with Japan unsure whether its key ally, the United States, is still behind it — both sides will approach any deal with caution.