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Russia and Japan Could Finally End WWII

Russia and Japan Could Finally End WWII

Saturday, 24 November, 2018 - 07:00
For decades, every sign Russia and Japan had made progress in talks on disputed territories and a post-World War II peace treaty turned out to be a false alarm. This time may be different: Both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe need a deal more than their predecessors did.

Putin and Abe met in Singapore last week and agreed to speed up talks on a peace treaty their two countries negotiated after World War II but the Soviet Union refused to sign. The talks will be based on a joint declaration the Soviet Union and Japan signed in 1956, since abandoned by both sides, that required the Soviet Union to hand over to Japan the island of Shikotan and the Habomai islets once a peace treaty was signed.

Both sides have strong misgivings about a compromise based on the 1956 declaration. For Japan, it would mean losing the leverage to claim much bigger territory (Etorofu and Kunashiri account for 93 percent of the land area of the disputed islands). For Russia, a deal is important (symbolically for the most part) to make sure no US military bases are placed on Shikotan and Habomai, something Abe reportedly promised to Putin but may be unable to rule out under existing Japanese commitments to the US.

Besides, the return of any of the islands, seized by the Soviet Union in the final days of World War II, is extremely unpopular in today’s Russia. Over the years, polls have consistently shown that 70 percent to 90 percent of Russians reject such a handover. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was at several points close to ceding some territory to Japan, but he always stepped back, fearing a powerful backlash from Communist and nationalist rivals.

Now, both Abe and Putin really want to put the matter behind them.

Abe’s primary interest is his legacy. If he can keep his job until the next scheduled election in 2021, he would be the longest-serving Japanese prime minister. But economic growth, spurred by his generous stimulus policies, has started to slow this year, and his tenure isn’t assured. He needs an important win to stay in power and ensure his place in history. A deal with Russia, though it would face some domestic opposition, could be perceived as such a victory when confidence in Abe’s foreign policy is flagging: Japanese voters are more open to a compromise than Russians. 

Putin’s interest is both economic and geopolitical. A deal with Japan would potentially open the flow of Japanese investment to Russia’s Far East, a vast, underdeveloped region where Russia needs to counterbalance a growing Chinese influence. Improving relations with Japan would also help Putin in his search for alternatives to cooperation with the West.

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