Putin: Russia does not negotiate its territory

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Karine Bechet-Golovko
In Russie Politics, September 12, 2016
Translated by Tom Winter

At each meeting of V. Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on economic cooperation between Russian and Japan, the question comes up about the Kuril Islands that the Soviet Union received following the agreements at the end of WWII. Though the President affirms that Japan has already once refused the restitution of the islands, yet the media persist in bringing up the idea.

The doggedness of the Russian journalists who regularly revive the notion of the returning the Kuril Islands to Japan leaves one pondering. Politically, such an act is unthinkable. Any Russian leader who would agree to sign such an act would immediately be considered a traitor to the Motherland by the majority of the population.

It is true, however, that the history of the Kuril Islands is politically turbulent. Japan, since the strengthening of Communist China, became a center of the struggle for influence between China and the Soviet Union (and later Russia) in the Pacific. 

And in the 60s the Kuril Islands were used by Japan, under US pressure, as a wedge to prevent any real Russian rapprochement with Japan. So today (at election time, in the midst of the US struggle to preserve “their” American-centered world legitimated by the Sept. 11 attacks), highlighting the spectre of the Kuril Islands is far from innocent.

Treaties of surrender signed by the losing parties are always disadvantageous. They pay the price for their defeat. Thus, at the Yalta Conference, it was established that the claims of the USSR regarding the Kuril Islands and southern Sakhalin would be met in the surrender of Japan. But then the United States, in 1956, claimed that the Yalta agreements were only the expression of an indeterminate intention that constituted no part of an international treaty. And therefore had no binding force. 

With that, the United States began their game of pitting Japan against the Soviet Union.

It is true that, with the use of the atomic bomb, the United States allowed itself to “forget” the promises of Yalta. And in the Japanese capitulation act that President Truman sent Stalin, there is no question of any surrender of Japanese troops to the Soviet army. Following this, the American occupation forces reported to Stalin their intent to use these islands for their bases. Stalin reacted strongly and blocked the process. 

Finally, the military governor of Japan, Douglas McArthur had to deliver to the Japanese Emperor for his signature January 29, 1946 a memorandum containing the details of islands north of Hokkaido over which Japan lost its sovereignty, including the Habomai archipelago, Chikotai etc.

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At the San Francisco Conference which opened September 1, 1951, the peace terms with Japan were negotiated. Finally, on the 8th, after hard negotiations, Japan renounced her sovereignty over the Kurils and the Sakhalines, but never named the islands of these two archipelagos. Under US pressure, neither was it indicated which of these islands passed into Soviet sovereignty, as arose out of the Memorandum of 1946. The USSR refused to sign the treaty under such terms.

During the following years, however, Japan lodged no territorial claims. Yet anti-American sentiment following the occupation of the territory was on the rise, and when the occupation officially ended in 1952, the Japanese authorities asked the United States to turn over the still-occupied islands, including Okinawa — a factor which does not come up at all in the American game in the region, especially with the strengthening of the Cold War.

In 1956, Khrushchev decided to take a step towards Japan for the signing of a peace treaty. He offered the return of two islands, Shikotan and Habomai, in exchange for normalization of economic and humanitarian relations, after the signing of the peace treaty and the return by the US of its islands in Japan, including Okinawa. Initially, the agreement was signed by both sides, but under pressure from the United States, Japan refused the two islands and insisted on recovering four islands and signed a new military agreement with the United States.

Since then, the conclusion of this mythical peace treaty between Japan and Russia still runs up against the question of frontiers, even though formally the issue is settled.

In this regard, at the press conference following the G20 just held in China, President Putin has been very clear: yes, we must continue to restore normal relations with Japan, but Russia does not negotiate its territory, thus reminding that it would be very dangerous to revisit the agreements reached at the end of the Second World War: One could rediscuss the German territory, the Ukrainian, the Polish etc. It would open a Pandora’s box.

The  Journalists in any case call it the “right time” to bruit renegotion rumors over the Kurils for some hypothetical Japanese investment in Russia — in medical material, transportation, ecology and another gas pipeline — projects whose credibility we have seen, once they come up against the “protected interests.” 

Do not forget that Japan is no longer, since the Second World War, a sovereign country. Even though it is certainly no longer officially under the occupation, that does not mean it is an autonomous player on the international scene.

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