The Strange Rapprochement: Russian Military Pressure Tactics on the Northern Territories Issue

For the past several years, Japanese diplomacy has paid great attention to relations with Russia. After the second Abe cabinet was established in 2012, beginning with his visit to Russia in April 2013, Prime Minister Abe adopted positive diplomacy toward Russia, realizing as many as 18 summits by the time of the July 2017 G20 sidelines meeting with President Putin. This is the greatest number of summits with any country’s leader, even exceeding the total with presidents of Japan’s ally, the United States, leaving no doubt about the stress the Abe administration places on Russia. After the 2014 Ukraine crisis, when, beginning with the United States, the G7 countries shifted in parallel to a hardline posture toward Russia, only Japan stuck to its position toward Russia, including on security.1 Moreover, while Japan joined in the economic sanctions on Russia as a member of the G7, it established in 2016 a minister in charge of economic cooperation with Russia and, then, sought to advance such cooperation through an “8-point economic cooperation plan.” In this article, I analyze the background behind the Japanese government’s position, explaining how it has endured despite Russian military pressure tactics to influence any outcome.

Two factors are paramount for Japan. First, without concluding a peace treaty between it and Russia lingering from WWII, Japan cannot resolve the issue of the return of the Northern Territories (what the Russian side calls the Southern Kuriles). Faced with this “abnormal situation,” Abe regards it as an important diplomatic task to “normalize” Japan-Russia relations during his term in office.2 Second is the political, economic, and military rise of China. With the end of the Cold War, the Soviet military threat disappeared, and the United States was left as the only superpower; Japan, as the world’s second economic power then came to feel that no security threat in East Asia was serious. However, now as China made unprecedented advances in economic and military power, while issues such as conflict over the Senkaku Islands keep recurring, consciousness of a China threat is rising rapidly. There is also deep concern that as China’s presence in the United States continues to grow, Japan may be abandoned by it. Strengthening relations with Russia, China’s strategic partner, points to Japanese thinking about counterbalancing China through its Russia policy.

The Russian side too showed that it, on the whole, welcomes Japan’s moves toward rapprochement with Russia. If we look at the Putin administration, which had resolved the Sino-Russian border question and the Barents Sea maritime border issue, the question of returning the Northern Territories to Japan is its last important territorial issue (excluding the disputes with Ukraine, Georgia, and other former parts of the Soviet Union). In order to resolve this, the Abe administration—established after Japan had escaped from the disorder under the DPJ administration—was regarded as finally offering a stable conservative administration as a negotiating partner. Moreover, cooperation with Japan could be seen as necessary for many issues, including the revival of the Russian Far East, reducing Russia’s dependence on China, and integrating into the Asia-Pacific region. On the surface, the recent rapprochement of Japan and Russia could be said to be a consequence of this kind of interlocking thinking. However, we should not overlook the presence of differences between Japan and Russia. These are manifest at the extreme by Russia’s “structural weakness” and distrust of the United States, which can be said to resonate in the naive expectations toward Russia on the Japanese side. Below, I try to elaborate on these points.

Warnings in Japan and Russia that the Other Will Run Off without Paying the Bill

Until about the fall of 2016 in Japan, there were strong expectations that the Northern Territories question would finally be resolved. Looking back at Japanese public opinion on Japan-Russia relations at the time, we can broadly discern the following understanding: 1) In a Russia faced with economic crisis, Japan’s economic cooperation will have great influence; 2) given good personal relations between Abe and Putin, who view each other as long-surviving leaders, they will make decisions based on mid- and long-term strategic considerations; and 3) since seeking the complete return of the Northern Territories is unrealistic, it will be better to be resigned to gaining back the islands of Shikotan and Habomai, based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration. The atmosphere of Japanese public opinion was “in order for us to make a beneficial contribution toward Russia, we must be realistic in restraining excessive demands.” This was said to be a distinctive feature in Japan’s approach, which the Russian side was expected to highly appreciate.

In contrast, observers who did not discard their wariness toward Russia warned strongly of the danger of Russia “eating and running,” taking what Japan has to offer through economic cooperation by using as bait the prospect of a peace treaty and resolution of the territorial issue, while not giving anything in return through territorial concessions. Seen from the vantage point of mid-2017, in fact, this concern has been proven correct. Not only in a Bloomberg interview in September 2016 did Putin say he would not sell away the territory in a deal,3 in December of that year in an interview with Japanese media, he spoke as follows: 1) Although the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration specified that two islands (Shikotan and Habomai) within the Northern Territories would be transferred to Japan following conclusion of a peace treaty, neither the conditions for the transfer or the sovereignty of the returned territory were specified; 2) despite the fact that the Joint Declaration was ratified by both countries, Japan has not fulfilled its responsibilities; 3) in light of the fact that Japan has a treaty responsibility toward the United States, it is necessary to clarify just how far Japan’s autonomy extends; 4) in the Sino-Russian border demarcation, a high level of friendship was reached at the end of 40 years of negotiations, and one cannot put Japan-Russian relations in the same category; and 5) the economic cooperation that Japan has proposed is not a condition for territorial negotiations but just a way of forging a positive atmosphere.

The above statements by Putin can be said to directly contradict the expectations of the Japanese side: Economic cooperation is not asked in exchange for the territorial transfer, but merely to encourage good relations, separate from the Joint Declaration. Moreover, Putin’s statement comprised points that had not been seen as problematic by Japanese public opinion, namely the treaty responsibilities of Japan toward the United States and the level of trust in Japan-Russia relations not reaching that of Sino-Russian relations. Language such as “treaty responsibility” or Russia’s “military doctrine” is used in order to point to military alliances, suggesting that Japan’s alliance relations with the United States pose a barrier to Russia proceeding to an agreement that would result in the transfer of territory.4

Prior to this, when National Security Advisor Yachi visited Russia, Secretary of the Security Council Patrushev conveyed that in case of the return of the Northern Territories, they must be excluded from the application of the Japan-US Security Treaty. To confirm, he then asked if after the return, the US bases would be moved onto the islands.5 Among those knowledgeable on the Russian side, such security concerns are deep-rooted.6 The foundation of the security concerns raised by the Russian side is that the Northern Territories are the southern edge of the Okhotsk Sea, where the SSBNs deployed in Russian Pacific Fleet are patrolling.

The contrast is notable with Sino-Russian relations. China is not a US ally, and resolution of their territorial question was not related to security issues involving the United States. In addition, various joint steps were taken from cooperating against terrorism, extremism, and separatism on the Eurasian continent through the SCO, which had developed from a framework of Confidence and Security Building Measures on the Sino-Russian border, to joining against US missile defense and on cyber security. In other words, insofar as Japan remains dependent on the United States for its security and fails to build cooperative relations with Russia in security, Putin’s logic is that it would be difficult to resolve the territorial question.

Naturally, the Japanese side cannot accept this kind of reasoning. The Japan-US security treaty is the foundation of Japan’s security, and it is hard to imagine that security cooperation with Russia could ever be an adequate substitution. After the Ukraine crisis, this is even more obvious, given that Russia appears to be strengthening its relationship with China. For Russia, too, considering China’s importance politically, economically, and in security, an alliance relationship with Japan would be unrealistic.7 Despite this, dangling before negotiations with Japan, Putin has played on the existence of the fear argument of “eating and running.” Indeed, should the territorial dispute be resolved at an early date, the argument goes that the Japanese side’s motivation for economic cooperation would be reduced. Thus, Putin is justified in delaying talks about territory, and this should be understandable to the Japanese, rather than taken as a sign that it is Russia engaging in “eating and running.” Each side distrusts the other’s intentions, and Putin has given the Japanese ample reasons to be suspicious since late 2016.

Among the 68 economic cooperation items on which the two sides agreed when Putin visited Japan, companies are willing to pay for only a portion, which should concern the Russians. There is a high likelihood, in fact, that should the territorial issue be resolved, apart from a portion with promising benefits, other economic projects would be stopped. Moreover, Russia cannot avoid considering that, as far as public opinion, the territorial issue is a weakness, not to be addressed prior to the March 2018 presidential election. Accordingly, for Russia, it is most convenient to make every effort to avoid concessions on the territorial question while pressing the Japanese side to continue economic cooperation.

The “Securitization” of the Northern Territories Question

While negotiations on the Northern Territories have been postponed due to security, the Japanese, without losing its patience, could consider reducing or ceasing economic cooperation. Russia’s GDP is no more than 12th in the world at about $1,283,200,000,8 and with economic stagnation due to a drop in energy prices, it cannot recover its earlier position. Russia conveyed that it will make big budget cuts in the Second Kurile Archipelago Social and Economic Development Federation Program (2016-25), which was advanced in pursuit of the plan to actualize Russia’s existing control of the Northern Territories.9 Economic weakness of Russia is certainly a big negotiating advantage for Japan.

On the other hand, Russia began to set forth a strategy for effective control over the Northern Territories, the main strength of which is maintaining it by means of strong militarization. Through “securitization” of the territorial question, Russia would extract economic cooperation without really advancing on the territorial issue. This strategy can be sharply differentiated into two aspects. The first regards modernization of the military forces on the Northern Territories. In 2011, Russia made public a plan for the modernization of its forces stationed on these islands, but toward the mid-2010s, real progress was scarcely discernible. Nonetheless, as the rapprochement was proceeding under the Abe administration, Russia made clear that it would realize reconstruction of its base infrastructure on Kunashiri and Etorofu islands and, in November 2016, its deployment of the most advanced anti-ship missile system complexes (the Bal with a range of 120 km and the Bastion with a range of 300 km). Ahead, there is the possibility that it will advance modernization by deploying, for example, attack helicopters and a long-range air defense system.

These kinds of actions were widely reported in Japan, too, but as necessary for a certain degree of protection. Deployment of Bal and Bastion on the islands gained attention when the newspaper of Russia’s Pacific Fleet, “Battle Station,” touched on it briefly in an article celebrating the day for honoring the artillerymen,10 and then was widely reported in both Japanese and Russian media. As far as can be seen in this transmission, there is no indication that the Russian government tried to make a case to Japan concerning the existence of these two missile systems. Also, as the Russian Defense Ministry is in the midst of deploying a network of A2/AD including anti-ship missile systems and a long-range air defense system in the broad expanses of coastal Russia, it is not a matter of building up military force only on the Northern Territories. If one tried to grasp based on the viewpoint that modernization of military force on the Northern Territories is Russia’s attempt to “contain Japan,” one would be narrowing the intentions of Russia unduly. It would be better to understand this as an extension of the existing plan to build up military force now being realized by Russia.

The China Card

It is possible that the military modernization of the Northern Territories has important significance from the standpoint of the China factor. The Russian side understands that Japan’s rapprochement with Russia has an aspect of counterbalancing China. For Russia, hinting at drawing closer to China, which has value for the Northern Territories question, is an effective strategy toward Japan.

Wielding the “China card”—for which questions of history and territory (Senkaku Islands) are Japan’s greatest concern—has great impact. For example, in May 2015, Putin invited Chairman Xi Jinping as his main guest in Moscow at the 70th anniversary of WWII victory, and in his speech, he praised the victory of the allied countries against German Nazism and Japan militarism. In September of the same year in Beijing, Putin also attended Chinese celebration of their victory over Japan. Having previously avoided involvement in Sino-Japan historical questions, Russia had finally begun to show a posture of leaning toward China.

On territorial questions, Russia had found it difficult to easily agree with China’s wishes to recognize each other’s positions that the Senkaku Islands belong to China and the Northern Territories to Russia, because committing to such an understanding would irreversibly deteriorate Japan-Russia relations. However, it has proved very effective as a tactic to hint at that possibility. In 2014, Russia agreed to conduct the regular joint maritime exercises in the East China Sea, close to the maritime area over which Japan and China are battling. If we consider the posture Russia had taken by keeping its distance from the Japan-China territorial dispute, this move can be seen as one opportunity for Russia to lean strongly to the side of China.

As opposed to the maritime exercises of 2014 when China had urged a more southerly location (closer to the Senkaku Islands) and Russia showed discomfort—as a result of which the northern part of the East China Sea was made known as the site—this time too the Russian side investigated taking a certain distance from China’s thinking. Also, it investigated an increase in activity by the Russian military in the Senkaku area. To this point, Russian naval warships had been seen to traverse using the right of innocent passage the exclusive economic zone of the Senkaku Islands, but to the extent that this was not considered one-off behavior, Japanese authorities refrained from publicizing Russia’s passages.

However, recently, there has been a tendency for such actions to increase. For example, in November 2015, it was revealed that four ships under the flagship of the Russian Pacific fleet, the Varyag, transited through the waters near the southeastern islands of Japan going back and forth for several days and staying overnight, passing within waters bordering Japan.11 In November 2016, a Ka-27 Russian naval helicopter approached the northern Senkaku islands, and was intercepted by Japan Air Self Defense Force’s fighter aircraft.12 One could not exclude the possibility, especially given the timing of the latter case (just before Putin was scheduled to visit Japan), that this was hinting at the possibility of connecting the Senkaku Islands issue and the Northern Territories issue.

In 2017, the linkage between the “China card” and the Northern Territories was shown to be taking clearer shape. On June 1, President Putin suggested at a press conference that the possibility exists that if the Northern Territories were transferred to Japan, US forces would be deployed there. In light of the deployment of THAAD in South Korea and other US missile defense systems in East Asia, he called the Northern Territories extremely favorably situated. Moreover, he added that for the demilitarization of these islands, it would be essential for tensions in the region to be stabilized. Two weeks later, on June 15, a military attaché at the Russian Embassy in Tokyo told the Japanese media roughly the same contents as in Putin’s statements at a media briefing (the first such appearance before the media of a Russian official apart from a major incident).

As is well known, China has declared its fierce opposition to THAAD in South Korea. In contrast, Russia, while strongly opposing the deployment of missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, had shown that it was not looking that much at the issue of missile defense deployment in East Asia. Turning back a decade, the official Russian news agency RIA Novosti and others carried editorials that were understanding of Japan’s deployment of a missile defense system, considering the threat from North Korean ballistic missiles.13 However, recently, Russia has come to express concern about the deployment of missile defense systems in East Asia, and tried to draw linkages between them and the Northern Territories question, as in the above-mentioned Putin remarks and the Russian embassy briefing.

From a purely military perspective, THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula does not damage Russia’s nuclear deterrence. As a terminal intercept system for the purpose of the defending South Korea, it cannot do more than was previously possible to attack ICBMs and SLBMs from Russia aimed at the United States. Technically there is little basis for explanations that strengthening militarization of the Northern Territories is to serve the purpose of countering the deployment of THAAD, but this should be understood as one link in Russia’s political stratagem. The embassy briefing following Putin’s statement was clearly intended to drive the message home to Japan.


The recent rapprochement between Japan and Russia does not necessarily mean that friendship between the two countries has strengthened. While in economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges, some progress can be seen, the reality is that both sides still fear that the other will “eat and run” on the core issues of a peace treaty and the territorial question. Moreover, amid the mutual distrust, one can see asymmetry in the methods that they regard as useful for conducting negotiations. In contrast to Japan, which does not have military leverage versus Russia and relies mainly on economic advantage, Russia’s leverage on Japan features precisely the opposite. In facing Japan, which wields economic cooperation, Russia has the strange plan to respond with military pressure. This can be considered a result of their leverage asymmetry, which is rooted in the national characteristics of the two states and therefore unlikely to change. It is possible that Russia will escalate its military pressure as a way to make Japan’s economic cooperation a reality. For example, it may be necessary for the joint exercises of China and Russia during Vostok 2018—big military exercises in the eastern district scheduled for 2018—to take Japan as the enemy and hypothesize a situation occurring in the waters near the Northern Territories.

The problem is how far structural fatigue can set into this relationship without being interrupted. Japanese public opinion so far is supportive of the Japan-Russia rapprochement despite feeling uneasy with Russia’s behavior. However, in case Russia’s military pressure turns a broad swath of Japanese public opinion against Abe, threatening to cut short his tenure as prime minister (a scenario that suddenly looks more realistic since the beginning of this year), there is a possibility that Japan’s attitude could change greatly. One Japanese diplomat once spoke as follows: “Our side has suffered invasion; the Soviet Union was the invader, disregarding the treaty not to attack each other and asking unconditional surrender. We do not have to yield on the territorial question. Even if just one island were not returned, as a matter of national pride, we would do well to continue insisting on the return of all of the islands—even for the next 100 years.”

1. Even after the Ukraine crisis, the Japanese government continued to send its national security advisor and other security officials to Russia. Moreover, it was the only G7 state, as in 2017, to hold 2+2 talks of its foreign and defense ministers with Russia.

2. For example, in December 2016, when Putin visited Japan, Abe at the joint press conference said, “there is no Japan-Russia peace treaty 71 years after the war. In this abnormal situation, we must put an end to this through our efforts.” See “Earnest Determination toward a Peace Treaty Declaration at the Japan-Russia Summit without Touching on the Return of the Northern Territories,” Tokyo Shimbun, December 17, 2016.

3. “Putin Sees Opening with Japan on World War II Island Dispute,” Bloomberg, September 2, 2016.

4. “Russian Demand Northern Territories Exclusion from Japan-US Security Treaty after Their Hypothetical Return,” Hokkaido Shimbun, October 15, 2016.

5. The Russian side expressed its displeasure at leaks to the media of such sensitive contents from the talks. “‘US Bases on the Northern Territories,’ Discussed—Russia,” Jiji Tsushin, December 14, 2016.

6. For example, consider the opinion of Luzhanin of the Institute of the Far East of the Academy of Sciences: “Sem’ prichin, po kotorym Rossiia ne mozhet otdat’ Kurily Iaponii,” RIA Novosti, September 12, 2016.

7. Dmitrii Trenin and Iuval Veber, “Tikhookeanskoe budushchee Rossii: uregulirovanie spora vokrug Iuzhnykh Kuril,” January 30, 2013,

8. “Gross Domestic Product 2016,” World Bank,

9. “In the years just ahead the Federation will not provide money for the program for the development of the Kurile Islands,” SAKHALIN.INFO, December 20, 2016.

10.   “Kliuchi ot neba,” Boevaia Vakhta, November 19, 2016.

11. Joint Staff Office of Ministry of Defense of Japan, “On the Movements of a Russian Naval Vessel,” November 20, 2015,

12. Joint Staff Office of Ministry of Defense of Japan, “On the Flight of a Russian Plane over the East China Sea,” November 22, 2016,

13. Petr Goncharov, “Protivoraketnaia oborona kak neizbezhnost’?” RIA Novosti, December 25, 2007.