Putin Surprises Tokyo With Peace Treaty Offer
Amidst longstanding tensions between Russia and Japan over disputed islands lying between the two former enemies — recently exacerbated by joint Russia-China military drills in the area — Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised delegates gathered at the Sept. 12 session of the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) with the declaration that he wanted a peace treaty with Japan “before the end of this year, without any pre-conditions.” Such a treaty, if successfully concluded, would finally and officially end the Second World War between Tokyo and Moscow.
The modern historical context behind the disputed islands starts with the first open conflict between the two: the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), fought over competing for imperial ambitions over Manchuria. After surprise Japanese success in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), Imperial Russia attempted to curb Japanese expansion into the Asian mainland and guarantee its own interests in China via diplomatic pressure — the Triple Intervention of 1895, in which Japan gave up its winnings in Manchuria in exchange for more indemnities from Qing China — and occupation of Manchuria, ostensibly to supervise construction of railroads.
Japan’s surprise attack on Russian naval forces in Port Arthur in Feb. 1904 led to a war, lasting a little over a year, that confirmed Japan’s rise as a regional — if not global — power and hastened the end of the Russian Empire in the face of military defeats on the front and simmering revolutions at home. The Treaty of Portsmouth, which formally ended the war in 1905, granted Japan’s control over the southern half of Sakhalin Island and Korea while turning over Russian leases to Japan and neutralizing Manchuria. This treaty marked the first significant instance of an Asian victory against a European great power in modern history.
While Japan and Russia became allies in the First World War, the waning days of the Second World War (1939-1945) found Tokyo and Moscow (now the Soviet Union) on opposing sides of the battlefield. Open conflict between the two, put off by a non-aggression pact signed in 1941, began just three days after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, with Soviet forces commencing the invasion of Manchuria. By the formal surrender ceremony on Sept. 2, 1945, Soviet forces had also invaded Sakhalin Island and occupied all of the Kuril/Chishima Islands.
Soviet claims to the two largest islands (Iturup/Etorofu and Kunashir/Kunashiri) and two islets (Shikotan and Habomai) closest to Japan’s Hokkaido island in the Kurils — claimed by Japan as the “Northern Territories” — stymied efforts to sign a formal peace agreement between Tokyo and Moscow in 1945. Since then, Japan has refused to recognize Soviet (and later, Russian) claims, instead only signing a declaration that ended the state of war in 1956 without broaching the topic of territorial disputes.
In the weeks leading up to the 2018 EEF in Vladivostok, it seemed as though the situation between Russia and Japan was not going to change. Since the beginning of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s second and current tenure in 2012, some 22 bilateral meetings with Russia have been held with effectively no change to both sides’ negotiating positions. Just a few days before the EEF, a separate meeting between Prime Minister Abe and President Putin resulted in a tentative agreement to promote economic activities on the disputed islands while avoiding tackling the dispute directly.
However, during a question-and-answer session of the EEF on Sept. 12, Putin — with Abe sitting nearby on the same stage — remarked that while he wished to continue discussing the island dispute with Abe as “friends,” he wanted to “conclude a peace treaty not now, but before the end of the year without any preconditions.” Putin was met with applause from the audience while Abe did not directly reply to the statement.
The Japanese government’s official response came later on the same day from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who acknowledged the “frank talks” seeking to resolve the dispute but restated that “there is absolutely no change to our country’s perspective of resolving the problem of rights over the Northern Territories before sealing a peace treaty.”
This is clearly not Russia’s first involvement with territorial disputes, with Moscow’s relationship with its western neighbors particularly strained after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. On the other hand, the tumultuous relationship between Japan and its rival China proves that peace treaties can be signed despite lingering territorial disputes: the two countries were able to conclude a peace treaty in 1978. The future direction of efforts to resolve the Kuril Islands dispute is now back up in the air.