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Contested Kuril Islands

A long-standing bone of contention between Japan and Russia.

Credit: Stratfor

The Russian invasion of Ukraine and reports that Moscow's "strategic operations" may spread to Moldova have strained the nation's relations with other countries.

Besides the breakaway republics of the erstwhile USSR, which President Putin hopes to bring back into Moscow's sphere of influence, there are other territories that Russia considers its own. The Kuril Islands/Northern Territories have long been a bone of contention between Japan and Russia. The dispute and treaties to resolve it date back to the nineteenth century.

But, Japan recently described four islands in the Kuril archipelago as "illegally occupied" by Russia in its latest Diplomatic Bluebook. Japan's Diplomatic Bluebook is an annual report on the country's foreign policy and international diplomacy published since 1957.

President Putin's invasion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine and his aggressive dealings with the rest of the world are seen as the trigger for such strong language from Tokyo.


The Kuril Island chain stretches from the Japanese island of Hokkaido to the southern tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. It is made up of about 56 small islands and separates the Okhotsk Sea from the North Pacific Ocean. The archipelago is part of the "Ring of Fire." There are about 100 volcanoes here, 35 of which are still active.

The dispute between Tokyo and Moscow is centered around four islands. Known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, they are Iturup/Etorofu Island, Kunashir/Kunashiri Island, Shikotan Island, and Habomai Island.

Credit: Wikimedia commons


Control of the islands, especially the southern isles, has changed multiple times between Russia and Japan since the signing of the Treaty of Shimoda in 1855. At the end of World War II, the USSR annexed the island chain.

Subsequent treaties, such as the Yalta Agreement (1945) and the San Francisco Peace Treaty (1951), only complicated the issue. After diplomatic ties were restored between Japan and Russia in 1956, the USSR proposed returning Shikotan and Habomai to Japan to settle the dispute. However, the interpretation of territorial provisions refused to allow the issue to be resolved.

Progress was made when, in 2018, the two nations agreed to settle the matter by conducting negotiations based on the 1956 declaration. The war in Ukraine seems to have stalled the process almost entirely.

Geopolitical significance

Most people on the islands have almost fully assimilated into Japanese culture. The people of Hokkaido have a deep emotional bond with the contested islands.

Moreover, the Kuril Islands' rich resources and strategic location make them coveted strategic outposts.

Besides being surrounded by rich fishing grounds, the area is likely to hold considerable oil and gas reserves. Rare rhenium deposits have been found on Iturup. The super-alloys of rhenium have many industrial uses. It is used in the combustion chambers, turbine blades, and exhaust nozzles of jet engines.

The rich birdlife and vibrant geography, including the many dormant and extinct volcanoes, give these islands immense potential as tourist destinations.

Besides tourist dollars, the islands can serve other purposes too. Russia deployed missile systems in the region in 2020. Reports suggest that Moscow is planning a submarine project intended to thwart American military activity in the area. Moscow is likely to use the islands to strengthen its position in the Pacific via the North Sea route.

China's aggressive stance in the South China Sea and its recent security pact with the Solomon Islands are raising tensions in the Pacific. Should Russian moves to use the contested Kuril Islands for military purposes come to fruition, the balance in the Pacific could be upset.


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