Russia is to blame for suspension of bilateral negotiations on northern territories

Russia bears full responsibility for the suspension of negotiations. The Japanese government must stick to its principle of demanding the return of the illegally occupied northern territories and enhance the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has announced the suspension of negotiations with Japan over the northern territories off Hokkaido in retaliation for sanctions Tokyo has imposed on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine.

It is reasonable that Japan has cooperated with the international community in imposing sanctions on Russia for its outrageous acts that violate international law. Russia is clearly at fault.

At a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said: “All of this stems from Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Any attempt to shift the issue onto Japan-Russia relations is extremely unjustified and absolutely unacceptable.” His strong protest against Russia’s actions was inevitable.

Russia’s claim that Moscow halted the negotiations due to Japan’s response to the Ukrainian crisis is believed to be no more than an excuse. Its real intent is apparently to weaken the effect of the sanctions by driving a wedge between Japan and Western nations. The Japanese government needs to remain unshaken and strengthen cooperation with the international community to make Russia pay for its invasion.

Under the administration of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan sought to build trust and advance negotiations over the northern territories through economic cooperation. However, the Russian side has unilaterally taken steps to make its control of the northern territories a fait accompli, even amending its Constitution to prohibit the cession of Russian territory.

On March 9, Russia legislated tax-free special zones to attract foreign companies to the northern territories. However, these four islands in the northern territories are part of Japan’s inherent territory. If Russia authorizes foreign companies to make investments, it would harm Japan’s national interests, which is unacceptable.

It is vital for the Japanese government to make its position on the matter widely known to other countries through the United Nations and other means so that foreign companies do not expand into the northern territories.

Russia has also announced the suspension of visa-free exchanges and other activities. The Russian Foreign Ministry said the suspension does not include visits to graves by Japanese former residents and others. If private-sector exchanges that have continued for more than 30 years are suspended, Russia would also suffer a huge loss.

Russia operates strategic nuclear submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk, and has been intensifying its military activities in the waters around the northern territories in a move apparently linked to the invasion of Ukraine. In February this year, Russia conducted a large-scale maritime exercise with more than 20 warships, including destroyers.

Recently, Russian warships passed through the Tsugaru and Soya straits. It is believed that Russia also conducted a drill to launch high-performance surface-to-air missiles on Etorofu Island, one of the four islands. This is apparently a show of force directed at Japan.

It is essential for the Japanese government to strengthen its vigilance and surveillance in light of the rising military tension surrounding the northern territories. The government also should do its utmost to ensure the safety of Japanese fishing vessels.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on March 23, 2022.