There is a diplomatic drama unfolding between Japan and Russia over the ownership and control of the southern Kuriles Islands seized by the Soviet Union in 1945 at the conclusion of the Asian theatre of the Second World War.
The Kuriles Islands with Russian names. Borders of Shimoda Treaty (1855) and Treaty of St. Petersburg (1875) shown in red. Currently all islands northeast of Hokkaido are administered by Russia
The acquisition of these islands prior to the conclusion of World War 2 by both Japan and Russia was clouded by the dubious nature of their title. These islands were originally part of Imperial China, incorporated into China by the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and later occupied by Chinese officials sent by the Greater Ming Dynasty, which took over the administration of both Sakhalin Island and the Kuriles in 1368. By the middle of the fifteenth century there was an active Chinese civil and military presence in Sakhalin and the Kuriles; they called the region Kuyi (苦夷 Kǔyí) or Kuwu (Chinese: 苦兀; pinyin: Kǔwù), and later as Kuye (Chinese: 庫頁; pinyin: Kùyè), as it is known today. Under the Ming dynasty, commerce in Northeast Asia and Sakhalin was placed under the "system for subjugated peoples", or ximin tizhi. The islands were under the administration of the Nurgan Regional Military Commission, which was established by Yishiha near today's village of Tyr on the Siberian mainland in 1411, and continued operating until the mid-1430s.[i] The Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) which replaced in Ming Dynasty included these islands as part of their lands.
Unfortunately for the Ainu, Oroks and Nivk populations which inhabited large parts of Sakhalin and the Kuriles there was an increasing interest by the Russians, the Japanese, the Dutch, the Jesuits and the occasional U.S. whaling ships in acquiring access to the islands. An early colonization attempt was made the Matsuda Clan of Japan who started a Japanese settlement at Otomari on Sakhalin's southern end in 1679. The Qing didn’t have a military settlement on the islands so these efforts at colonisation had little opposition.
Russian territorial expansion began in earnest after 1721 when Peter the Great sent out explorers to map the Arctic and the Pacific Coasts It was the Golden Age of Russian exploration, with intrepid explorers like Bering and Alexei Chirikov and the teams led by Stepan Malygin, Dmitry Ovtsyn, Fyodor Minin, Semyon Chelyuskin, Vasily Pronchischev, Khariton Laptev and Dmitry Laptev.[ii] In 1786 Catherine the Great announced that the territories identified by these explorers were automatically part of Russia because they “discovered” them.
Competing occupations of some of the islands continued without conflict It wasn’t until the Convention of Kanegawa was signed between the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan and the United States (the Perry Convention signed on March 31, 1854), that Japan ended its period of “sakaku” self-imposed isolation (1639–1854) that Japan joined in the world of international trade and politics. The Russians entered into the commercial market with Japan by signing the Treaty of Shimoda (February 7, 1855) opening the ports of Nagasaki, Shimoda and Hakodate to Russian vessels and established the position of Russian consuls in Japan and defined the borders between Japan and Russia.
As commercial and political relations prospered between Japan and Russia they decided to adjust the land borders between them in the North Pacific. They agreed the Treaty of Saint Petersburg on 7 May 1875, stipulating that Japan ceded to Russia the part of Sakhalin island it then owned in exchange for the group of the Kuriles Islands owned by Russia (between Iturup island and the Kamchatka Peninsula – see map). Sakhalin island as a whole became Russian territory, and the entire Kuriles archipelago Japanese territory. Japan also acquired free access for its fishing fleet to the Sea of Okhotsk and ten years free use of Russian ports in the area.
The growing naval competition between Japan and Russia drew the two apart and led to war between the two nations. The Russo-Japanese War developed out of the rivalry between Russia and Japan for dominance in Korea and Manchuria. In 1898 Russia had pressured China into granting a lease for the strategically important port of Port Arthur and the adjacent peninsula, even though, in concert with other European powers, Russia had forced Japan to relinquish just such a right after Japan’s victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Moreover, in 1896 Russia had concluded an alliance with a weak China against Japan and won the right to extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad across Manchuria to the Russian seaport of Vladivostok.
The Russo-Japanese War began when Russia, faced with the growing might of Japan’s army and navy, refused to honour an agreement between the two in 1903 to reduce Russian forces in Manchuria. Japan used this breach to attack Russia at Port Arthur. On February 8, 1904, when the main Japanese fleet launched a surprise attack and siege on the much weaker Russian naval squadron at Port Arthur. In March the Japanese landed an army in Korea that quickly overran that country. Japanese forces cut of access to Port Arthur from above it on the peninsula. The Russian army fell back to Mukden after losing battles at Fu-hsien and Liaoyang, south of Mukden. The Port Arthur commander surrendered with three months’ provisions and adequate supplies of ammunition still in the fortress. The final land battle was staged at Mukden when an outnumbered Japanese force drove the Russians from the battlefield. The naval situation was far worse for Russia. On May 27–29, 1905, in a battle in the Tsushima Strait, Admiral Togo Heihachiro’s Japanese fleet destroyed the Russian Baltic Fleet and left the Russians unable to supply their land forces.
President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States served as mediator at the peace conference, which was held at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, U.S. (August 9–September 5, 1905). The two parties agreed the treaty talks and the resulting Treaty of Portsmouth (September 5, 1905) ended the war, gave Japan back half of Sakhalin Island, the Chinese Port Arthur, the South Manchuria Railroad. Japan continued their rule the Kuriles Islands. Russia agreed to evacuate southern Manchuria, which was restored to China. The reaction within Russia was unfortunate for the Tsar and the 1905 Revolution grew out of it. This did not resolve the issues in Russia and, in 1917, the Russian Revolution (the October Revolution) began and civil war between the Red Army and the White Army spread across Imperial Russia.
The Red Army fought the White Army throughout former imperial Russia. A large military force, the Czech legion which had been brought in to fight the Red Army from the East was trapped by the Red Army successes and couldn’t return home. The Japanese were exceptionally active and had stationed 72,000 troops in Siberia and were funding a wild bunch of Cossacks guerrilla under warlords like Semenov and Kalmikov.
Britain, France and the other forces engaged in the First World War threw their lot in with the White Army. As a gesture of neutrality, Woodrow Wilson ordered that an American Special Expeditionary Force be sent at once to Vladivostok under the leadership of Major General William S. Graves. He, and 8,000 troops, landed in Vladivostok on the first of September 1918. They were there, not to take sides in the civil war, but to try and rescue the Czech legions and the thousands of German and Austrian prisoners of war. They took up their duties patrolling the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Chinese Eastern Railway.
They were attacked by all sides. The Red Army attacked them in battles along the Trans-Siberian Railroad; the Red Partisans attacked their encampments; and the Cossacks (pushed by the Japanese) fought the U.S. troops all over the Far East. The Japanese didn’t fight but used their proxies to try and drive the U.S. out of their headquarters in Vladivostok and their regional headquarters in Khabarovsk. In this struggle the Japanese took back the northern part of Sakhalin in 1920 but were forced to give it back in 1925, to the Soviet Union. The last U.S. troops left on April Fool’s Day 1920, but the Japanese continued to occupy large areas of the North Pacific.
The Soviet Union’s Very Short War With Japan
The Russians lay claim to the Kuriles Islands as if they were ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the settlement of the end of the Second World War. They have no legitimate claim for such an assertion as they have no yet signed a peace treaty with Japan and have walked away from a treaty which would have given them some rights in the islands. Before 22 June 1941 the Second World War the Soviets were in a mutual defence treaty with Nazi Germany; the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, officially known as the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was a neutrality pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939 by foreign ministers Joachim von Ribbentrop and Vyacheslav Molotov, respectively. That pact lasted until Operation Barbarossa saw Germany attack the Soviet Union. The Soviets were equally unreliable in the Far East.
In fact, for almost the entirety of China’s brutal and costly war with the Japanese the Soviet Union was bound by a treaty with Japan which guaranteed Soviet neutrality in Japan’s vicious attack on China. The Soviet Union and the Empire of Japan signed the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact (Nisso Churitsu Joyaku), also known as the Japanese-Soviet Non-aggression Pact (Nisso Fukashin Joyaku) April 13, 1941.The pact ensured the neutrality between the Soviet Union and the Empire of Japan during virtually the whole of World War II. The treaty was signed in Moscow, by Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka and Ambassador Yoshitsugu Tatekawa for Japan and Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov for the Soviet Union.
Not only did this pact ensure that Japan would not have to fight on two fronts in the War in the Pacific it also recognised the legitimacy of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria), wrested from China. The Soviet Union pledged to respect the territorial integrity and inviolability of Manchukuo despite the fact that its allies in the Allied Powers refused to recognise Manchukuo as a legitimate state. The Soviet Union, which had taken over full control of the communist-led Republic of Mongolia which included the whole of Outer Mongolia taken from China (and never returned) was recognised by Japan in the treaty in return for the Soviet recognition of Manchukuo.
This treaty was a major bone of contention between the Soviet Union and the rest of the Allied Powers., even when the Soviets had switched sides from the Axis. Roosevelt and Churchill pressed the Russians for their entry into the war on the Pacific front, but Stalin refused to budge. It wasn’t until the Tehran Conference in November 1943 that Stalin agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan once Nazi Germany was defeated. The Soviets did nothing constructive in Asia for two more years. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin finally agreed to Allied demands for the Soviets to enter the Pacific Theatre within three months of the end of the war in Europe.
On July 26, the US, UK and China made the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum calling for the Japanese surrender which if ignored would lead to their "prompt and utter destruction". The Japanese decided to carry on with the war and began to suffer heavy defeats. The war was waged against the Japanese mainland, but resistance was still strong. On August 6, 1945, the United States detonated an atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima, at 8:15 AM local time. Sixteen hours later, American President Harry S. Truman called again for Japan's surrender, warning them to "expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth."
Stalin got the message and decided that, in spite of his treaty with Japan he would bring the Soviet Union into the war in the Pacific Theatre. A few hours after Truman’s demand for a Japanese surrender after the bomb on Hiroshima, Stalin ordered his troops to prepare for war with Japan. This was late on the evening of August 8, 1945. Just as Soviet troops swept down to attack the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo on August 9th, the U.S. dropped the second nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki the same day.
The Soviet troops moved into Manchukuo, Korea, and to Sakhalin and the Kuriles Islands. As agreed with the Allies at Yalta, if the Soviet Union entered the war it was entitled to annex the territories of Karafuto and the Chishima Islands and also to establish pre-eminent interests over Port Arthur and Dalian, with its strategic rail connections. These territories on the Asian mainland were subsequently transferred to the full control of the People's Republic of China in 1955; the other possessions are still administered by the Soviet Union's successor state, Russia. In addition, the Soviet invasion effectively took over the northern half of the Korean Peninsula.
A few days later, on August 15, 1945 the Emperor Hirohito announced the unconditional surrender of Japan. The war was over, The Soviets had acted just in time. Their troops were at war for less than six days in Asia. In return for their notional war effort they took effective and recognised control of Mongolia, the various offshore islands occupied by Japan and North Korea. They later were forced to give back to Mao control of Port Arthur and Dalian. They kept everything else. It was a great reward for six days of war.
The problem was that most of these areas it took as its own were not the property of the Japanese (except for the Kuriles and Sakhalin). They had been part of China and were put under Japanese control during the long period of peace between Japan and the Soviet Union. The big loser was China, but Japan has not yet signed a Peace Treaty with the Soviet Union or Russia as long as Russian disputes Japanese control of the Kuriles and Senkaku territories.
This issue was supposed to be resolved in the Treaty of San Francisco, commonly known as the Treaty of Peace with Japan, agreed between Japan and the Allied Powers after the war. It was officially signed by 49 nations on September 8, 1951, in San Francisco. The Soviets refused to sign and walked away. It didn’t like the treaty because, inter alia, it did not recognise the Soviet Union’s claim of sovereignty over the Kuriles or South Sakhalin. On October 19, 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a Joint Declaration ending the war and re-establishing diplomatic relations. However, this did not deal with the issue of sovereignty over the Kuriles.
These are still a bone of contention between the two and a source of potential military confrontation. The confrontation between the Allies and the Soviets in Korea occurred in the war from 25 June 1950 – 27 July 1953. That peace treaty is also not settled.
The Current Crisis Over the Kuriles
For many years, Japan’s prime ministers have been engaged in a series of diplomatic efforts to persuade President Putin, the Russian leader, to return Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and the Khabomai islets, which Japan insists on collectively calling the Northern Territories. There seems little basis in which the two can agree as both have strong, nationalist armies of patriots demanding the neither give up one inch of (Russian or Japanese) territory. The demographics have been changing When the islands were occupied by Soviet forces at the end of WWII, more than 17,000 Japanese citizens were expelled from the islands. They were replaced by 19,000 Russian settlers brought to the Island by the Soviets. Periodically Japanese fishermen are found dead or wounded near the islands. “The Russian foreign ministry has said that Mr Morita (the fisherman) was killed by a stray bullet intended as a warning shot. It expressed regret but put the blame on Japan.”[iii]
Russia has been increasing its military footprint on the Kuriles. Russia has deployed Bal and Bastion coastal missile systems on the islands as well as new-generation Eleron-3 unmanned aerial vehicles. The Bal and Bastion systems can fire anti-ship missiles up to a range of 190 miles. The Eleron-3 is an intelligence drone with a range of about 90 miles. In April 2019 the Russians confirmed that the Russian Pacific fleet, based in Vladivostok, would send a naval convoy on a three-month expedition to the Kurils to examine the possibility of opening a new base there. The 8th Machine Gun Artillery Division of the Russian army already has a presence on three of the disputed islands.
In March 2019 the Russian held a military exercise on Etorofu and Nashiri, two of the four Kurile Islands off Hokkaido. According to Interfax, “some 500 troops from machine gun and artillery units participated in the drill, which included practicing how to prevent an enemy force from landing, the Russian news agency said.” The exercise involved various types of military equipment, including T-72 tanks and mortars. Moscow is strengthening its military capabilities on the Kuriles, treating them as a major military foothold in Russia’s Far East. In late February 2019, Russian authorities said 350 troops took part in a drill on the Kurile Islands.
It is clear that Japan will have an uphill task in displacing them peacefully. Not a bad gain for
[i] Tsai, Shih-Shan Henry. Perpetual Happiness: The Ming Emperor Yongle, University of Washington Press.2010
[ii] Russian Northern Expeditions (18th-19th centuries)". Beaufort Gyre Exploration Project, 2009.