That could change now that the leaders of both countries have solid nationalist credentials and could pull off what analysts call a “Nixon-to-China moment.”
Like stridently anti-Communist President Nixon, who traveled to Beijing in 1972, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could hardly be accused of failing to defend their countries' national interests. That could provide them leeway to resolve an obscure territorial dispute that has hampered relations since the Soviet Red Army seized four small islands from Japan after its 1945 surrender.
Prospects for a breakthrough emerged this week when Abe and Putin, holding the first summit between their two nations in a decade, announced that negotiations on a peace treaty will resume soon. At a meeting in Moscow that also entailed extensive talks on new business deals, the leaders declared the absence of a formal accord “an abnormal situation” hindering mutually advantageous collaboration.
Pragmatism is the impetus driving the rekindled peace talks. Russia’s underdeveloped eastern reaches yearn for the kind of technological infusion and investment that neighboring Japan could provide, and Russia would benefit from diversifying the market for its natural resources, currently dominated by China.
“I don’t think either of the two countries wants to see China become a regional hegemon in Southeast Asia, albeit Russia might not be happy with the lead role the United States plays there either,” said Simon Saradzhyan, a Russian scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center. “A more robust Japanese-Russian relationship would help both Tokyo and Moscow to balance China’s rise.”
Outsiders might be perplexed by the power of the islands dispute to thwart a stronger Japanese-Russian relationship. But the fate of the Southern Kurils, as they are known to Russia, or the Northern Territories, as Japan calls them, is fraught with emotion, symbolism and pride.
“There is a certain limited strategic value in the sense of where they are located, but nobody lives on them and they don’t produce anything,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, Russia Eurasia Program deputy director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “A lot of it is symbolic, which is why reaching an agreement is so hard.”
For Russia, “it’s about the legitimacy of what the Soviet Union fought for in World War II,” Mankoff said, referring to the more than 23 million lives lost turning back the Nazi invasion. For Japan, he said, decades of revolving door political leadership and economic decline have deprived Tokyo of “a government confident enough in itself not to be outflanked by the right” if it were to cut a deal that recovered less than full sovereignty over all four islands.
Japan needs reliable sources of energy, which Russia has in abundance. Selling oil and gas to Tokyo would help fill the void in electricity production created by the shutdown of all but two of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors since the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima plant meltdown. And boosting Russian energy deliveries to Japan would undermine China’s ability to demand price reductions as Moscow's most vital customer.
Japan's enduring sense of loss over the islands is apparent in the ritual pilgrimages made to the northeast extreme of Hokkaido Island to gaze over the Nemuro Strait at the mist-shrouded silhouette of Kunashir, noted Sheila A. Smith, senior fellow in Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
While longing for the islands remains poignant, Japanese bitterness toward the Soviet Union has been muted by the collapse of the Communist empire and the passing of many who endured the wartime hardships.
Russia and Japan have developed their relations independent of the diplomatic obstacle of still being at war, Smith said. But she noted that Russia is the only World War II enemy with which Tokyo has yet to reconcile.
"It's the historical significance of forgiveness that they're missing," Smith said of Japan's unsalved war wounds.
For Russia and Japan to achieve that belated reconciliation, both sides are going to have to make concessions that they have previously rejected, Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri V. Trenin argues in a December report on "Russia’s Pacific Future: Solving the South Kuril Islands Dispute."
Trenin calls Japan's demand for the return of all four islands "a nonstarter" and blames Tokyo intransigence for instigating Russian nationalist saber-rattling over the islands. Putin's predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, twice visited the islands during his tenure, threatening to bolster Russia's hold on the land by basing antiaircraft units on the disputed territory.
Trenin proposes a formula for resolving the sovereignty issue -- and the absence of a peace treaty soon thereafter -- by which Japan would recover the two smaller islands nearest Hokkaido, Shikotan and Habomai. The larger and more resource-rich Iturup and Kunashir would be jointly administered for at least 50 years, preferably with fish, gold, silver and minerals shared or processed at a mutually operated economic zone.
"I don't think they would have a hard time coming up with ways to cooperate for mutual economic benefit," Smith said. "The real crux of the matter is how to present a political solution of the sovereignty to the publics in both countries. That may be something easier for Abe and Putin to do than it would have been for their predecessors."
A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.