Speaking during the plenary session at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin took his guests and audience by surprise. Turning to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who sat alongside him on stage, the Russian president said: “An idea has just come into my head. Let’s conclude a peace treaty before the end of this year, without any preconditions.”
The remark was met with thunderous applause within the auditorium. It appeared to offer the prospect of a peace treaty more than 73 years after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in August 1945. It also seemed to present an opportunity to resolve a situation that both sides have described as abnormal.
Yet Putin’s proposal is far less impressive than it seems. In reality, Russia has long been willing to sign a peace treaty with Japan. The reason this has not occurred is because Japan refuses to do so until the countries’ territorial dispute has been settled. This relates to what Russia calls the Southern Kurils, a group of islands off the coast of Hokkaido that were occupied by Soviet forces after the Japanese surrender, and that are still claimed by Japan as its Northern Territories.
In calling for a peace treaty to be signed immediately and without preconditions, Putin was effectively urging Japan to abandon its territorial pretensions.
Since Putin knows that Abe could never accept such a proposal, why did he make it?
It was presented as an off-the-cuff suggestion, but this is not credible. Putin is an extremely disciplined politician and is an excellent tactician. This is not the same situation as the Krasnoyarsk summit in November 1997 when an erratic Boris Yeltsin told Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto: “We should settle the territorial problem and conclude a peace treaty today.” The president’s panicked advisers had to intervene and persuade him to commit to the looser goal of concluding a peace treaty by the year 2000.
Rather than being an impulsive proposition, Putin’s peace proposal was a calculated political move.
First, it was a piece of political theater. Knowing that his proposal would generate international headlines, it was a means of drawing additional attention to the Eastern Economic Forum. This event, which is now in its fourth year, has been heavily promoted by the Russian government, which wants to establish it as the premier economic and political forum in Northeast Asia.
Second, the offer makes Putin appear eager for peace while placing the Japanese leadership in a difficult position. Since the Japanese government cannot accept the proposal without abandoning its claim to “inherent” national territory, it has no choice but to reject it. This makes Japan look like the obstacle to a peace treaty.
Abe himself gave no immediate response to Putin’s unexpected proposal, of which there had been no mention when the two leaders met for more than 2½ hours on Monday. Shortly afterward, however, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga publicly rejected Putin’s offer, reiterating Japan’s position that the territorial dispute must be resolved before any peace treaty can be signed.
Despite Putin’s purported enthusiasm for rapidly signing a peace treaty, it is questionable to what extent the Russian leadership truly wishes the resolve this issue.
To begin with, the absence of an official peace treaty presents no problem. The state of war was formally ended by the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which restored “peace, friendship and good-neighborly relations.”
The lack of a peace treaty also has little bearing on bilateral economic ties. These have never fulfilled their potential, yet this is not due to political matters. Rather, it is a consequence of Japanese firms’ hesitancy about investing in Russia’s risky regulatory and legal environment.
Additionally, the status quo regarding the disputed territory suits Moscow. Russia is already in full control of the contested islands and has been free to develop the civilian and military infrastructure in recent years.
In principle, Russia would have little difficulty in declaring the matter to be settled and refusing to engage in any territorial negotiations. This was the position of the Soviet Union until April 1991. It is also Japan’s position on the Senkaku Islands dispute with China.
That the Russian leadership so willingly concedes to discuss the islands, and encourages the idea that it is eager for a peace treaty, is an indication that they find value in keeping the topic alive. Putin has also made sure to periodically rekindle Japanese hopes, such as in March 2012 when he suggested that the dispute might be settled as a draw (or hikiwake). He did this again Sept. 12, stating that the islands “don’t have fundamental importance to Russia’s economy,” thereby hinting that Russia might be willing to part with them.
By taking this approach, Moscow has created an incentive for the Japanese government to engage politically and economically. The fear of disrupting territorial talks also discourages Japanese leaders from taking a confrontational approach toward Russia.
The effectiveness of this tactic has been clearly on display since 2014, when Japan distanced itself from Western efforts to censure Russia for its destabilizing international behavior. In justifying this stance to Western leaders, Abe has explained that he cannot afford to miss the rare opportunity for a territorial breakthrough that Putin appears to be offering.
It is understandable that Japanese leaders will explore opportunities to recover territory that they believe to be rightfully Japan’s. However, they should recognize that their ambitions for territorial progress present Russia with a significant source of political leverage.
James D. J. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Temple University, Japan campus.