Dmitry Gorenburg on Japan-Russia ties

Dmitry Gorenburg is Senior Research Scientist in the Strategic Studies division of CNA, where he has worked since 2000. Dr. Gorenburg is an associate at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and previously served as Executive Director of the American Association of the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS). His research interests include security issues in the former Soviet Union, Russian military reform, Russian foreign policy, and ethnic politics and identity. Dr. Gorenburg is author of Nationalism for the Masses: Minority Ethnic Mobilization in the Russian Federation (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and has been published in journals such as World Politics and Post-Soviet Affairs. He currently serves as editor of Problems of Post-Communism and Russian Politics and Law. Dr. Gorenburg received a B.A. in international relations from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University. He blogs on issues related to the Russian military at He spoke to Isabella Speciale CMC ‘17 on April 6th, 2016.

Biography and Photograph courtesy of Dmitry Gorenburg.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently announced that Moscow would be placing missile systems on the disputed Kuril Islands. How important to Japanese-Russian relations is the dispute over the Islands?

The dispute has been a critical issue in bilateral relations for years now, certainly since the start of the Post-Soviet period, probably even earlier. It has varied over time with one side or the other being more or less willing to compromise, but there has never been a time when both sides were on the same page. In the 1990s, there was a thought that Russia would be willing to give up some or all of the Islands in exchange for Japanese investment. As the Russian economy started to rebound under Putin, Russia needed the investment less, and at the same time the nationalist attitudes became stronger; so there was less willingness to give up territory than there might have been early on. On the Japanese side, the maximalist position has always dominated popular opinion, so there was little desire or willingness to contemplate solutions short of Japan regaining all four Islands. Since that was seen as unacceptable by the Russian side there has never really been space for a compromise. 

Historically, what are the claims to the Islands and how have they continued to be a disputed territory in 2016?

The claims go back to World War II. The Soviet Union took them over at the end of the war and there are very technical details about exactly which islands are included in the Kuril Island chain; the Soviet Union claimed it was all of the islands, Japan said the disputed four islands were not part of the Kuril Island chain. So there are different interpretations of what was meant when it was decided the Soviet Union would hold on to the Islands. In the mid-1950’s there was the greatest opportunity to resolve the dispute when there were negotiations over the peace treaty. There were proposals to split the islands, with Russia taking two and Japan taking two. Some historians say that the U.S. scuttled that deal because it didn’t want normalization of relations between Japan and the Soviet Union. After that there were various degrees of opposition on one or both sides that has prevented agreement. So it remains probably the most significant difficulty in the relationship between Japan and Russia. In recent years there has been more of an effort to bracket the dispute, because both sides realized it was not going to be solved any time soon, and it would be better to try to develop relations in other areas. That has allowed some of the rhetoric to be toned down. I don’t see the dispute as being amenable to resolution any time soon. 

What are the broader security implications of Moscow’s decision to build up its military presence on the Kuril Islands?  

I don’t know if it will actually change anything. They have had a fairly significant military presence there for a long time, with artillery divisions and ships from the Pacific Fleet patrolling the area. This may be coming in the larger context of the greater overall tension between Russia and the Western Alliance, which Japan is obviously a part of. So that may be part of the issue, but I don’t think it’s going to change that much in terms of the actual security situation. I don’t think either side expects a conflict, and I don’t think an actual military conflict could break out over the islands.  There are a lot of symbolic acts going on here rather than actual military concerns. 

How do you interpret Minister Shoigu’s claims that a naval fleet will be dispatched to “study the possibility of basing forces of the Pacific Fleet on the archipelago?” Is this a real possibility for the Russian Pacific Fleet?

I don’t expect that. Maybe they could have small patrol boats, but these islands are not really a place where you could have the facilities that are necessary for a serious naval base. Plus, I don’t think the Russian military particularly wants to spend the money that it would take to really develop the infrastructure that would be needed to have any kind of a serious base. Now, having a few patrol ships there, again, that has the symbolic aspect that the Russians may see as beneficial for cementing its claims to the Kuril Islands. Maybe that is what is going on there. 

What are the broader economic implications of a worsening relationship between Russia and Japan? What response, economic or otherwise, might Moscow’s recent assertions elicit from Japan?

Japan has already signed up for the Western sanctions against Russia, and before it had done that, there was more of an effort to improve relations between the two sides. There was a perception around 2013 that there could be a real breakthrough in relations. Some people who were optimistic were saying that they could have an agreement on the Kuril Islands dispute. But that all went away once the sanctions were announced. For Japan, energy is its biggest need, in terms of what Russia can provide. Especially since Japan shut down a lot of its nuclear power industry after Fukushima, Japan has become more and more dependent on foreign energy sources. There is a lot of discussion of trying to get more gas out of its existing fields. Clearly if there were to be an improvement in relations then Russian energy would be the biggest benefit for Japan. The other aspect of Kuril Islands that is important for Japan is fishing. The area around the islands is known as particularly rich fishing grounds. There are fishermen from the northern parts of Japan that have traditionally fished in those areas, including former inhabitants of those four islands. They want to continue using those territories, and every so often, there were situations where the Russian coastguard detained Japanese fishing vessels that strayed into Russian territory. So that is an area of tensions that comes out of the economic realm, but is also more symbolic because fishing is an important industry for Japan but not critical in the same way as energy. 

Are there important areas of coordination and cooperation between Japan and Russia that enhance security in the region?
I don’t know to what extent there is any cooperation. One area that I think cooperation would benefit both is a coordinated response to China potentially dominating East Asia and the Pacific in a way that could have a negative impact on security for both sides. Russia, in the post-Crimea, post-Ukraine environment, has largely hitched its wagon to China and has developed that partnership as much as possible. But some in Russia still see China as a potential security threat down the road. To the extent that that is the case, Russia would want to find allies in the region to help it counter this potential threat, and Japan would be an obvious country that would have a similar point of view. They could certainly work together on that. That probably requires a greater level of trust than exists at the moment, so clearly that is an area where the Kuril Islands dispute creates distrust and therefore prevents cooperation that would benefit both countries otherwise.

How does the territorial dispute between Japan and Russia affect U.S. ties with both states?  

The U.S. has always sided with Japan on this question, and will continue to do so especially given that the U.S.-Russia relationship has deteriorated to a greater extent in the last couple of years. There really is no question of what side the U.S. is on now. There is no particular push from the U.S. to try and resolve the dispute in the way there was in the 1990s when there was the perception that Japan could help Russia economically if the dispute were resolved. Clearly reducing the number of territorial disputes would be helpful for overall regional security, but it’s just not a priority area for the U.S. If Japan decided tomorrow that it wanted to solve this dispute, I think the U.S. wouldn’t go against it in the same way it did in the 1950s. But at the same time, unless it becomes a priority for Japan, the U.S. will just stand aside and continue as is.

Isabella Speciale CMC ‘17Student Journalist

Featured Image source: "DSCF3520” by Peter — Own Work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons —

First Image source: “Sea of Okhotsk Map” by NormanEinstein — Own Work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons —

Second Image source: “DSCF3174_1” by Peter — Own Work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons —


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