All too often we forget that Russia and Japan are technically still at war, in name if not in practice. They never actually sued for peace after the end of World War II. Moscow and Tokyo have repeatedly tried to cure this hangover from the 1940s only to be stifled by a territorial dispute that began more than a century ago. Today, rumors surfaced yet again that the two countries are on the brink of peace. Nikkei, the Japanese daily, reported that leaders from Japan and Russia were discussing an enhanced version of a phased transfer of ownership of the territory in question, the Kuril Islands. Kyodo, another prominent Japanese news agency, claimed that the potential agreement would be a bit more convoluted.
The disputed islands are part of a much larger archipelago stretching from Japan's northern border to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the Pacific Ocean. In 1875, the Treaty of St. Petersburg formalized Japan's control of the Kuril Islands while giving neighboring Sakhalin Island to Russia. Tokyo, however, won half of Sakhalin back after it defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), giving it territory just 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the Russian coast. Then ownership transferred back to Russia after Japan's defeat in World War II. The Soviets expelled all Japanese citizens from the islands and installed their own military and population to settle its claim.
Tensions have only escalated since, much to the detriment of bilateral trade. Perhaps this is why Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have tried to restore relations. Both leaders see opportunity in cooperation; Russia, rich with energy but starved of foreign investment, is an ideal partner for Japan, hungry as it is for energy with money to burn. (It's worth noting that Russia needs Japan more than Japan needs Russia.) Trade between the two countries has quadrupled since 2006, reaching a record-high $34.8 billion in 2013.
Seductive though the economic reasons for peace may be, Japan and Russia also have ulterior, strategic motives. Japan wants to secure its northern flank so it can fully focus on growing aggressions in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Russia would also like stronger ties with Japan in order to have more leverage in its relations with other Asia-Pacific nations such as China and South Korea, but it is also keen to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo — a key component in the U.S. alliance network.
The crisis in Ukraine, which began in 2014, brought these strategic visions to a halt. The West imposed sanctions on Russia over its involvement in the conflict, and Japan joined the fray. Any hope of a peace deal was dashed and, to make matters worse, bilateral trade plummeted by more than 33 percent the following year after oil prices fell and Russia's economy declined.
The desire for peace, however, has proved resilient. In early 2016, Abe expressed a renewed enthusiasm for a rapprochement with Russia as the Ukrainian crisis seemed to stall and as some Europeans began to consider easing sanctions. (Abe also has a personal interest in striking the deal: His father served as Japan's foreign minister in the 1980s, and supposedly his father's dying wish was a Russo-Japanese peace treaty.) Russia too has a renewed interest in moving forward. The country wants to show it is not entirely isolated by world powers and that it is still an attractive investment destination. To that end, Russia and Japan have discussed a variety of investment projects over the past few months, and Japanese firms are on the short list of Moscow's preferred recipients of stakes in its oil firm, Rosneft.
But while momentum may be growing ahead of a meeting between Abe and Putin on Dec. 3, major obstacles remain. Russia has negotiated the resolution of other territorial disputes of late, but the tone of such conversations has changed since it annexed Crimea in 2014. A rise in Russian nationalism has made it harder for the Kremlin to trade away land. In September, Putin even went so far as to say, "We do not trade territory." His spokesman has since tempered that comment, but the Kremlin is still compelled to persuade the Russian people of the advantages a peace deal would entail — namely, economic trade with Japan potentially worth tens of billions of dollars.
Russia has also intimated that progress on the deal would require Japan to lift its sanctions and, in doing so, break ranks with the West. Until recently, Abe may have been more willing to concede. The prime minister has been bucking Washington's pressure over Russia all year. U.S. President Barack Obama warned Abe not to visit Russia for a summit with Putin in May, but he did anyway. Relations between the United States and Russia, however, have worsened in recent weeks, thanks to developments in Ukraine and Syria. With the prospect of escalated conflict came more pressure to maintain sanctions on Russia — more pressure, in fact, to expand sanctions. Several events that happened today do little to help Russia's cause: The Russian military intensified its actions in Syria by targeting Turkish-backed rebels, and Putin's summit with Germany, France and Ukraine yielded nothing. The United States will almost certainly increase its pressure on Japan to keep sanctions.
The other major player to consider is China, which has a complex relationship with its two powerful neighbors. Because warm relations between the two threatens Chinese interests, Beijing tends to play Moscow and Tokyo off each other, and it has no reason to abandon that strategy just yet. Just as harmful to its interests, however, is Japan's alliance with the United States, so Beijing may view a Russo-Japanese detente as a way to add some distance between Tokyo and its powerful U.S. ally.
Russia and Japan see the benefit of bridging the gap between them. But that's no easy feat, considering the gap is filled with more than a century of hostility.