Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is urging talks with Russia so that the two nations can finally sign a peace treaty. This should come as something of a surprise to the vast majority of people, who likely had no idea that there even was a peace treaty between Japan and Russia that needed signing.
Check your scoresheet. Russia is mixing it up in Ukraine, and Japan and China seem to be verging on near-permanent snit, but Russia and Japan haven't been at war since way back in the 1940s.
Which, technically speaking, is not exactly correct. While the fighting between Soviet and Japanese troops was all wrapped by the end of 1945, wars sometimes leave behind lots of paperwork. In the Pacific theater, the formal peace between Japan and almost everyone else wasn't signed until the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco. But that peace treaty didn't include the Soviets, because the Soviets occupied a tiny little bit of Japanese real estate, the southern Kuril Islands. Negotiations on formally ending the state of war between the Soviet Union and Japan dragged on for another five years until October 19, 1956, and even then they only ended the state of war, rather than declaring the two countries to be in a state of peace.
For those who haven't been scrutinizing the geography of the Northwest Pacific Rim, the Kuril Islands are basically an 810 mi (1,300 km) long, dotted line of an island chain, connecting the northernmost part of Japan to the tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. On one side of that dotted line lies the vast Pacific Ocean; on the other is the Sea of Okhotsk.
Russia and Japan have, over the centuries, scrimmaged up and down the island chain; by time the fallout had settled over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviets had scampered all the way down to the very end of the Kurils, poised to begin their invasion of the Japanese home islands with a hop onto the northernmost main island, Hokkaido. Japan gave up fighting before that could happen.
Despite the fairly conclusive end to fighting that went with their surrender to the allies in 1945, the Japanese were pretty adamant about maintaining sovereignty over at least some of the Kuril Islands. The Soviets, recognizing that possession is nine-tenths of the law, essentially told the Japanese to get lost. Now, to be fair, there's a bit more to the Cold War politics, but the long and the short of it is that the Japanese weren't in a position to refuse the Soviets. Even so, the Japanese never gave up on the idea that those four southernmost Kuril Islands were properly part of Japan, and not some later imperial acquisition.
With the 1956 treaty, the Japanese and Soviets agreed, more or less, to disagree and signed a statement ending their state of war. A solution to the Kuril Island dispute was put on the "To Do" list they needed to get through before they would sign an official peace treaty, which allowed them to bank their respective diplomatic gains and call it a day.
So, weeks turned into decades, the Soviet Union fell, the Russian Federation rose, and still there was no resolution to the dispute and no peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo. Which, except for ardent nationalists on either side, should firmly plant this in the category of things nobody cares about.
However, there are a couple interesting pieces of context that tie this all together: nuclear weapons and fossil fuels.
And since the start of the current territorial dispute was kicked off with nukes as the Second World War ended, let's start with the nuclear weapons.
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Submarine-based nuclear missiles are a great insurance policy. If someone sneaks up on you with a big nuclear whammy, missiles hidden on submarines are a great way to ensure their sneak attack doesn't pay. But to work, it has to be very hard for the other guy to find and kill your submarine nukes.
The US and Russians have two different strategies on preventing the other guy from finding the subs. The US sends its super-silent missile subs way, way, way out into the middle of nowhere, far beyond the range of pretty much anything, and then lets them quietly loiter around in the vast, expansive depths, trying very hard to look like another patch of ocean. This is the idea of hiding a nearly invisible needle in a gigantic haystack.
But the Russian missile subs aren't as sophisticated. So the Russians figured that even if they tried to hide in huge haystack, people might be able to find them. Thus, they came up with a pretty good alternative: naval bastions.
Basically, the Russians figured that if that their subs aren't great at hiding, they could make finding them and hunting them down a painful experience. They'd use close, easily dominated bodies of water that they could defend as roaming grounds for their missile subs, and then beat the daylights out of anyone who came snooping around. It's like hiding a needle in a much more modest haystack, but breaking the nose of anyone who got near the haystack. If the Americans were using a bastion strategy, they'd be sending all their nuclear missile subs on patrol in Lake Michigan, and then daring the Russian navy to sail up the St. Lawrence Seaway in hot pursuit.
Which brings us back to the Kurils. By virtue of geography, the naval bastion for the Soviet Pacific Fleet happens to be the Sea of Okhotsk, bordered by the now suddenly more interesting Kuril Islands. The Kurils are an important part of defending the bastion, because the islands themselves force traffic into the gaps between them, which can be closely monitored and planted thick with naval mines. Meanwhile, the islands themselves can play host to all manner of handy military installation.
Even though, hypothetically, antisubmarine aircraft could fly out of Hokkaido on the prowl for subs, that's a far different matter from letting US subs into the bastion to hunt at will. Thus, if the Russians give up any of the islands, they're introducing a huge potential vulnerability into their own nuclear deterrent.
But if that's the case, why did Abe make a campaign promise in 2012 to bring this up, and deliver on that promise with his 2013 visit to Moscow? Why on Earth would Japan, a very avowedly anti-nuclear-weapons country, even want to get into the thicket of Russian nuclear deterrence?
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That brings us to the economics. Above and beyond regular, run-of-the-mill bits about freedom of navigation and trade routes, the Sea of Okhotsk is ridden with submerged oil and gas deposits, which the Russians are just starting to exploit. So the theory could be the Japanese want a slice of that pie, and are looking for whatever leverage they can use to get it.
Where does that leave us today? Russian President Vladimir Putin has offered up two tiny islands in exchange for a solemn promise from Japan to shut the hell up about the Kurils already. But this is nationalist squabbling over borders, and compromise is hard to come by. So the Japanese said that the two islands (Shikotan and the Habomai rocks) would be a great first down payment, but they'd still be expecting to see the larger Kunashir and Iturup islands at a later date.
On closer inspection, the location of the two tiny islands means that Putin's offer may well be reasonably sincere and not absolutely crazy. Those two islands are on the Pacific side of the Kuril chain, and would still allow Russia to control access to the Sea of Okhotsk as long as it retained the two big islands, Kunashir and Iturup.
While this might appear to be a good compromise, the two islands are only a tiny bit of the total territory, and accepting a deal limited to those two would probably be taken as abject failure by the Japanese far right.
So why consider the deal at all? Well, Japan has been looking for closer relations with Moscow for a while, also because Japan knows that in the event of full-blown war in the Pacific, contending with both the Chinese and Russian navies in the north would be wicked hard. If Japan can secure the cooperation of its far flank, or at least avoid outright hostility, it makes for better strategic positioning. Anything Tokyo can ask of Moscow and then back down on is, effectively, a bargaining chip in times of crisis and an excuse to keep the lines of communication open in the interim.
Finally, it could simply be that holding talks, even if they don't go anywhere, puts more options on the negotiating table for both countries, increasing the chances that they'll be able to find some sort of compromise that will get both parties to sign on the dotted line.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan