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The Thin Red Line, - Dmytro Levus

The border with Japan is breaking out of the Russian myth of the permanence of Russia's borders. Dmytro Levus, an expert at the United Ukraine Think Tank, writes about this in his article for The Gaze. The text of the article can be found below.

Russia's border with Japan is peculiar. First, it is entirely maritime, just under 200 kilometers long. Second, Japan does not recognize this border. For decades, Japan has been demanding the return of several Kuril Islands, which it considers to be illegally controlled by Russia. These are Habomai (though it is a group of islands), Kunashir, Shikotan, and Iturup, with an area of 5,000 square kilometers. There are a few other illustrative moments. For Russia, the Far East remains a really remote and completely undeveloped, one might even say wild part of the country. Neither during the Soviet era nor now is Moscow able to put these lands in order. Accordingly, it is difficult for people to live there. But this does not concern the Kremlin.

The Far East is habitually seen there as a place of basing for the Pacific Fleet and a springboard for threats in the global confrontation with the United States. The existence of a territorial dispute and claims by Japan is a confirmation of the importance of the islands held by Russia in the Russian consciousness. This significance of the islands, abandoned far from the center of civilization in the Russian understanding, feeds the Russian arrogance of the invader, constantly reminding us that in 1945 Russia took these lands from Japan...

From the Treaty of Shimoda to the Moscow Declaration

During the 17th and 18th centuries, both the Japanese and Russians explored the Kuril Islands. In 1855, Russia and Japan signed the Treaty of Shimoda, according to which the border between the countries was established along the strait between the Iturup Islands, which belonged to Japan, and Urup, which was recognized as Russian. Sakhalin was recognized as the property of both Russia and Japan.

Today's Japanese Northern Territories Day, February 7, was established in honor of the Treaty of Shimoda. Exactly twenty years later, in 1875, under the Treaty of St. Petersburg, Moscow ceded all of the Kuril Islands to Japan and gained full control of Sakhalin. In 1905, after the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Russia lost the southern part of Sakhalin.

The Soviet-Japanese War, as an integral part of World War II, where the USSR fought alongside the Western Allies, was and is perceived in Russia, by and large, as revenge for the defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. It was after this war that Soviet control over the southern part of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands was established. In 1951, Japan and the Allies signed the San Francisco Treaty. According to it, Japan renounced its rights to the southern part of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

However, Japan did not believe that the above-mentioned four islands were part of the Kuril Islands, so it did not give up its rights to them. The USSR did not sign the agreement at all. The fact that Japan's position was correct is confirmed by the fact that in 1956, when the Moscow Declaration was signed, the USSR agreed to return two of the four islands to Japan: Habomai and Shikotan.

But the return package included the signing of a peace treaty, which would have fixed Japan's neutral status. This is an insidious condition. It posed a real danger to Japan, which was aware of the threats posed by the USSR and the fact that it would complicate relations with the United States, with which it was just forming allied relations up to and including American security guarantees.

Abandoned Trophies

Although the Russians say that they have been developing the Kuril Islands for centuries, in fact, all of these islands are a war trophy of the USSR after the end of World War II in 1945. Not only those whose status as Russian territory is officially disputed by Japan. The same applies to the Big and Small Kuril Islands and even the southern part of Sakhalin Island.

In general, the situation is similar to that of the Kaliningrad region in the European part of the Russian Federation, which is also a trophy obtained after the defeat of Nazi Germany. The parallels are obvious. Just like in the Kaliningrad region (former German East Prussia), the Russians evicted the local population. Germans were evicted from East Prussia, and Japanese were sent to Germany from Sakhalin and the Kuriles. From South Sakhalin, in particular, about 400 thousand people were evicted in 1947. From the Kuril Islands, 17-20 thousand.

Just as Prussian Lithuanians were evicted from East Prussia along with the Germans, the Ainu, an indigenous people who had lived there for thousands of years, left with the Japanese. The Russians on Sakhalin, and especially on the Kuril Islands, were unable to establish the comfortable life that the Japanese had.

The area is covered with artifacts of Japanese civilization. The landscape remains alien to Russians. Of course, South Sakhalin, called Karafuto in Japanese, has cities and towns, roads built by the Japanese in 1905-1945, and what can be called a civilized economy.

But the Kuril Islands remain sparsely populated. There are virtually no paved roads, poor cellular and Internet connections, and logistical problems with Sakhalin, where the regional center is located. In general, the population of all these territories is now about the same as when they were ruled by Japan. There are about 20 thousand people in the Kuriles. Moreover, the Kuril Islands have been experiencing depopulation since the end of the Soviet Union. For example, on the island of Shumshu, the closest to Kamchatka, all settlements have been abandoned, and there are no people left there.

Military Kuril Fever

In addition to the previously mentioned "prestige" of owning the islands, Russia's leadership pays attention to the strategic importance of the Southern Kuriles, which are claimed by Japan and separated from its island of Hokkaido by the Soviet Strait or Goyomai Suido, which is only 10 kilometers wide.

The Russians say that if Japan gains control of the four Kuril Islands, the Russian Pacific Fleet, whose main base and headquarters are in Vladivostok, will not be able to reach the Pacific Ocean and will be blocked in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. The Pacific Fleet is a powerful grouping of the Russian Armed Forces, with nuclear submarines carrying nuclear missiles. Therefore, it is an instrument of Russian influence in the Asia-Pacific region and the power with which Russia confronts the United States.

Japan, on the other hand, is perceived in Russia as an adversary, especially since it is indeed a US ally in the region. Russian generals and political leaders fear that Japan could conduct an amphibious operation and seize what they consider to be their land. This view is reinforced by the fact that for the Russians, such actions to return "historical lands that were unjustly taken away" are quite logical and legitimate.

This is exactly what the Russians did in 2014 in Crimea, to which they had no rights, and which they themselves officially recognized as part of Ukraine, without questioning Russia's borders with Ukraine. However, one should not think that the group's task in the Kuriles is purely defensive. Plans for a landing on the Japanese island of Hokkaido to practice the relevant skills are not something fantastic for the Russian military. In this regard, the Kuril Islands are highly militarized. It is the military, their families, and military personnel who make up the majority of the population. There are anti-ship missiles, strike aircraft, and air defense on the islands.

The basis of the grouping is a unique military unit: The 18th Machine Gun and Artillery Division. However, the aggressive war against Ukraine, which did not go according to Russia's plan, has somewhat changed the military balance even in the Far East and the Kuril Islands. Just as it happened with the Russian special Arctic units that were supposed to support Russia's ambitions in the North but instead got burned in the fighting in Ukraine, contract soldiers and officers from Iturup and Kunashir ended up in Donetsk region.

Ukrainian journalists have conducted several interviews with prisoners from this island, which are available on Youtube. In this context, it becomes obvious that in the imaginary scenario, a clash between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and Russian troops in the Far East is not unambiguously positive for the Russians. Although the factor of Russian nuclear weapons remains.


The border with Japan is breaking out of the Russian myth of the stability of Russia's borders. This is primarily due to the steadfastness and principled nature of Japan's position with a clear legal basis, which ensures its support from other countries, including the United States. It should be noted that for a long time, when relations with the USSR and Russia were tense, China also expressed support for Japan's claims. Only in 2023 did China declare its neutrality. This happened when Russia became China's junior partner. However, this is hardly a significant factor. More importantly, Russia failed to make the Kuriles a prosperity zone, but the Japanese remember these lands and waters. This probably means something when clashes with Japanese fishermen that have been going on for decades become part of Russian border folklore.

Source: "The Gaze"

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