Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin’s visit to the Kuril Islands last week was an important message to Japan, but also to other audiences. The island chain has been claimed by Russia since the end of the Second World War, but Tokyo does not acknowledge Moscow’s claim. The debate is not new and the islands are a constant thorn in Tokyo’s side. Russia and Japan have previously struggled over property rights surrounding the archipelago.
The Kuril Islands, for the most part, fall under Russian administration, but Japan claims the four southernmost islands, including two of the three largest islands, Iturup and Kunashir, as Japanese territory (known as the Northern Territories). Russia’s governance of the Kuril archipelago drives its claims. Over the years, Russo-Japanese talks on resolving the dispute have been off and on. The latest round is likely to lead to tensions, with Tokyo possibly taking a stronger position than usual. Mishustin’s visit occurred as the Tokyo Olympics were underway, telegraphing a particular message to Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Suga’s approval rating is dropping and the timing of the Russian prime minister’s visit was a clear power play over the islands and their use.
Mishustin is touring Russia’s Far East and Siberia, with the Kuril Islands his first stop, specifically Iturup. During his visit, the Russian PM sent a message to Japan about Moscow’s development plans for the Kuril Islands, including the establishment of a free trade zone (FTZ), prompting a harsh rebuke from the Japanese foreign minister. Mishustin is acting on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct orders: Putin told him to pay special attention to the Kuril Islands during his trip to the Far East, noting that Moscow is working with Japanese partners to create the necessary conditions for increasing economic activity.
An FTZ on what is perceived to be Japanese territory is a bold step by the Kremlin as it seeks to stake its geostrategic claims in terms of islands and seabeds. The melting of the Arctic ice cap and the opening of the Northern Sea Route are part of the emerging geoeconomic red lines that are popping up. Russia sees Japan’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in the Indo-Pacific in terms of a new security arc against both China and Russia. In a 2021 joint statement, “The Spirit of the Quad,” the group described “a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” while emphasizing the rules-based international order.
These strategic moves directly challenge demarcation and maritime security. Russia’s merchant marine fleet plays an important role and can be seen as an ancillary to the Chinese fishing fleet model.
Japan’s Hokkaido is separated from Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula by the Sea of Okhotsk. Hypothetically, Russian development of the archipelago would act as both a barrier and point of projection for shipping and maritime activity, including for the increasingly assertive Pacific Fleet of the Russian Navy.
The FTZ’s objective, according to Mishustin, is to create a special regime on Iturup that would allow for the intensification of economic activity throughout the island chain. The FTZ would help to build business for Iturup’s industries, which can be spread up to the archipelago. The increased strategic value of the archipelago under an overarching FTZ may be attractive to logistical operators, as well as industrial factories.
Mishustin’s trip also occurred just a few weeks before the 2021 Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) is due to be held in Vladivostok. This is scheduled to be a large in-person event that will likely result in specific strategic decisions and investment strategies. Infrastructure deals are to be emphasized and likely signed by many investment firms from around the world. Importantly, both Putin and Suga are expected to attend. In a recent Russian Security Council meeting, Putin said Russia would present Japan with new proposals for an agreement on the Kuril Islands dispute.
So the groundwork for development on the islands is already in play and an assertive Russia is likely to get what it wants out of the EEF conference. It wants to start developing the archipelago as soon as possible as part of the emerging strategic challenges it faces as a result of climate change. It will be important to watch as Moscow makes this economic move, which may be a challenge to the legal regimes and norms emphasized by its Indo-Pacific partners.
• Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @tkarasik