Strategically negotiate with Russia based on original point of northern territories issue

Russia has been acting insincerely in a series of responses as if it were denying past negotiations. The government needs to take a strategic approach to the matter based on the original point of the territorial issue.

The Russian government has unveiled a plan to develop a large-scale resort on Etorofu Island in the northern territories. It has already deployed a surface-to-air missile system on the island and is conducting military exercises on it and Kunashiri Island. This acceleration of “Russianization” is unacceptable.

The four islands are an inherent part of Japan’s territory, and therefore a course must be set out for their restitution at an early date. It would also be in Russia’s interest to conclude a peace treaty and improve bilateral relations.

However, the Russian side has continued to make statements that run counter to dialogue.

Former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said that it became impossible to negotiate with Japan over the handover of the territories, citing Russia’s amended Constitution that stipulates the prohibition of ceding territory. One Japanese Foreign Ministry press official even said, “In whatever form, we cannot even discuss the matter.”

At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin has left some room for negotiation in a way to discuss border demarcation.

Putin apparently intends to win concessions from Japan, such as economic assistance, but this is extremely regrettable. A cooling of Japan-Russia relations will be the inevitable result.

Some observers believe that the harsh domestic situation the Putin administration is facing has prompted a series of remarks on the territorial issue. In addition to a sense of stagnation felt among the public due to the long-running administration, the economy is also sluggish, and the approval ratings of Putin and his ruling United Russia party are on a downward trend.

The Putin administration has maintained its power by relying on conservatives. He may have been repeatedly making bullish remarks to avoid being seen as weak-kneed on territorial issues, to which his support base attaches importance.

Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aimed to make progress on the territorial issue in a flexible manner by repeatedly holding summits with Putin. To ensure the restitution of the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan Island, Japan agreed with Russia in 2018 to “accelerate peace treaty negotiations based on the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration.”

Negotiations afterward were brought to a standstill because Russia returned to a hard-line attitude. In response to the worsening relations with the United States, Russia has strengthened its cooperation with China, and the two countries since 2019 have jointly conducted military air exercises around Japan, significantly eroding the trust Russia had with Japan.

At this year’s National Rally to Demand the Return of the Northern Territories held on Feb. 7, a statement condemning Russia’s illegal occupation of the islands was adopted for the first time in three years.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Putin, in telephone talks in September last year, agreed to continue negotiations. It is hoped the government will break the deadlock, keeping in mind the public’s increasingly harsh views on the matter.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 22, 2021.