The issue at stake in Russo-Japanese relations has not changed since the 1950s: ownership of the southern tier of the Kurile Islands. During the Second World War and in the expectation of entering the war against Japan or forcing the Japanese to make weighty concessions in negotiation once the tide had turned in Europe after victory at Stalingrad, the Russians set about making up a shopping list of their demands.
The job was given to a Stalin favourite, Yakov Malik, the young and ambitious ambassador to Japan who, though a Ukrainian and to Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov’s disdain, dared to use “Russia” in his drafting interchangeably with the orthodox “Soviet Union”. Yet he was not a man of any courage – when the Americans fire bombed Tokyo Malik was the first to panic and to the wry contempt of his team at the embassy. He was just eager to please the man who counted: Stalin. On 21 July 1944 Malik argued strongly that “in no way can we allow territories contiguous to Soviet Far Eastern possessions (Manchuria, Korea, Tsushima, the Kurile islands) pass from the hands of the Japanese into the hands of some other strong power” (Haslam, Russia’s Cold War. From the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (New Haven: Yale, 2011), p. 42).
This was, indeed, an impressive shopping list, and once the Americans dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan, as anticipated, early in August 1945, Soviet forces raced in over the border to seize what they could and that included the entire Kurile Islands chain reaching north from Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island. The Russians never got the whole of Korea, despite a second attempt in June 1950. Manchuria had already been relinquished to the People’s Republic of China, somewhat reluctantly in 1949. But what Stalin did seize from Japan in the form of the southern end of the Kurile Islands – the Habomais, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu – has proved sufficient to create an immense obstacle to the conclusion of a peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo.
All ingenious attempts to get around this problem, including sustained efforts under Mikhail Gorbachev, came to nothing. Traditionally a pro-Japanese lobby never existed in Russia; only an anti-Japanese one. And now, the 22nd summit involving Russia and Japan, held on 10 September, also failed to solve the problem. Putin, however, returning with empty hands, has suddenly declared that he has found a way out of the difficulty: by signing a peace treaty that would leave the territorial question unsettled. Indeed today, 12 September, Vzglyad ru, a reliable if uncritical mouthpiece of the Kremlin, has emblazened its editorial page with the suggestion that this is “a revolutionary proposal” from the Russian President.
Of course, it is nothing of the sort. It was the negotiating stance tirelessly proffered by Andrei Gromyko without a trace of embarrassment multiple times since relations reached a dead point after Nikita Khrushchev, through then Deputy Foreign Minister Malik, finally withdrew a compromise offer – of handing over just the Habomais and Shikotan – in the autumn of 1955. The Japanese were bludgeoned into refusing it when US Secretary of State Foster Dulles imposed maximum pressure on Tokyo (Russia’s Cold War, pp. 160-163). The Americans were not about to see Japan drift from the US embrace. Were Putin to revert to the offer of 1955, one might indeed call it revolutionary; short of that, it is just more of the same.