The Kuril Islands: Spillover of Nationalism From the Annexation of Crimea

Off the northeast coast of Japan there are four small islands. These are the Kuril Islands, and though easily overlooked on a map, they are the reason that over seven decades since the end of World War II have passed without a Russo-Japanese peace treaty. 

The four disputed islands are Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan, and Habomai. The Soviet Union seized these islands in August of 1945, and incorporated them into Russian territory.[1]

These tiny islands seem negligible: miniscule compared to Russia, and even the much smaller Japan. So why does Russia insist on keeping them?

If we apply the standard model of analysis to answer this question, we would assume that Russia sees factors in its external environment that make these islands important to its security, perhaps even its survival.[2]  

For example, one possible incentive to keep the islands is the hope that with this territory, Russia can coax Japan to back away from its close relationship with the U.S.. In light of the upcoming missile defense system Japan is developing alongside the U.S., and the fact that this would make possible the placement of American weapons in Japan,[3] this is a plausible Russian interest.   

However, the U.S. and Japan have been allies for seven decades, during which they have. cooperated on a number of issues, including trade, global health, and diplomatic initiatives.[4] The Kremlin would be politically inept to think that it could drive a wedge between them. 

One could also argue that these islands are crucial military assets[5]. However, the strongest piece of this argument is the possibility that the U.S. will place weapons within Japanese borders. Russia’s unwillingness to give concessions to Japan will accomplish nothing with regards to Japan’s alliance with the U.S., and in fact risks pushing Japan even closer to America. Let’s not forget that the U.S. was Japan’s ally during the Cold War,[6] and therefore the first power Japan will turn to if it perceives Russia as antagonistic. 

The standard model of analysis does not sufficiently explain why Russia refuses to relinquish these islands. We must look instead at what that land symbolizes in Russian history, as well as after the annexation of Crimea.

In Russia, the Second World War is called the Great Patriotic War. Because Russia was invaded, and its very existence threatened, emerging as the victor of World War 2 is paramount to Russian national identity. Any territorial concession to Japan, the aggressor, would be seen as a capitulation undermining the legitimacy of Russia’s statehood.[7]

In addition, the significance of public opinion is difficult to overestimate especially because of the wave of nationalism that followed the annexation of Crimea. After the forceful annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin anticipated international criticism, and was wary of similar sentiments arising at home. To prevent this, it roused up nationalism in the Russian people to insulate itself from domestic backlash. 

Putin built himself up as a defender of Russian status on the international stage, and now, failure to deliver and expand Russian territory further will be tremendously disappointing.[8] Relinquishing territory would be political suicide. 

What we see in the Kuril Islands is nationalism that has spilled over and that is constraining foreign policy. The Kremlin’s hands are tied: initial efforts to instill patriotism were too successful, and the Kremlin can no longer control nationalist sentiments. Moscow cannot make concessionary moves without inciting outrage. It is not that Moscow is insistently holding onto the Kuril Islands, but rather that it is afraid to let them go. The result is a rigid, uncompromising stance on an issue that is neither strategically advantageous for, nor particularly pertinent to Russian security.

Perhaps in the future, we will see more constrained actions by Moscow, as it will have learned that domestic expectations arise. But for now, we shouldn’t feel too optimistic about a Russo-Japanese peace treaty in the next few years.