Lost Islands Roil Relations Between Moscow and Tokyo

The Kuril Islands that Russia took from Japan in 1945 are still an irritant in relations between the two countries.

Amiel Ungar, | updated: 23:49

Russian Flag in Shikotan
Russian Flag in Shikotan

At the end of World War II, Josef Stalin, fulfilling his pledge to Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. declared war on Japan, although Russia and Japan had signed a non-aggression pact between them. Stalin was motivated by real estate aspirations and his penchant for demonstrating that he, an ethnic Georgian, could do better in advancing Russian claims within the Soviet Union than the defunct Russian Empire.

The Soviet Union, formally succeeded by Russia, has controlled the Kuril Islands ever since then. Japan regards them as the lost Northern Territories. For this reason, Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty formally ending World War II. This of course does not prevent an exchange of ambassadors and extensive trade relations.

The Japanese, however, have not forgotten the loss of the islands, and every February 7 they celebrate "Northern Territories Day" marking the 1855 treaty that gave them title to the islands. These are not simply historic sentiments, but economic ambitions. With the extended territorial sea, the islands, as close as six miles from Japan, have potential for oil and gas exploration as well as mineral deposits and fisheries.

The Russians recently rubbed a raw nerve when in November, President Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to visit the islands. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan condemned the visit as "inexcusable rudeness." On the anniversary date itself, nationalist Japanese demonstrators dragged a Russian flag in the dirt before the Russian Embassy in Tokyo shouting that Russia should return the territories that it was illegally occupying.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed Russia's position on the islands when he met with Kan on Saturday. "Our assessment of the situation is that the president decides himself which region of Russia he visits… This is and will remain our territory," said Lavrov.

A Novosti editorial called upon Japan to get real. Japan had threatened to temporarily recall its ambassador to Moscow.  Japan announced that this measure would be temporary from the outset as Japan has no wish to jeopardize its trade with Moscow and is still jockeying for a pipeline that will convey Russian oil to Japan.

The heating up of the dispute allowed China to get into the act and it called on the two parties to resolve their territorial dispute through dialogue. A spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry said that the issue concerned Moscow and Tokyo only. This was a veiled slap at the United States, that has made itself a party to territorial disputes in Southeast Asia between China and countries such as Vietnam and Japan.