Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited Etorofu Island, one of the four Japanese islands controlled by Russia, last week as it continues to provoke Japan over the dispute. Earlier this week, Russian forces held live-fire drills near Kunashiri, another of the islands that form the Northern Territories off Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.
Medvedev insists the islands belong to Russia. The drills are reportedly part of military exercises in Sakhalin. By taking such provocative acts on Etorofu and Kunashiri, Moscow obviously aims to assert that the country has sovereignty over the two islands.
The Japanese government lodged a protest with Russia saying that such actions are “unacceptable.” A Japan-Russian foreign ministerial meeting that was to be held in Bangkok was consequently cancelled.
Tokyo and Moscow have held consultations based on a framework for negotiations on the settlement of the territorial dispute and the signing of a peace treaty, If Medvedev visited Etorofu Island amid such consultations without considering the other party’s position, it would constitute betrayal of Japan’s trust in Russia. The visit has only made bilateral negotiations more difficult.
Medvedev is said to have visited Etorofu partly for the purpose of supporting a ruling party candidate in the Sakhalin gubernatorial election. The approval rating for the government of President Vladimir Putin is low because of a prolonged economic slump. Under the circumstances, the prime minister obviously visited Etorofu to appeal to the Russian public.
At the same time, it is clear that Russia took advantage of Japan’s weak-kneed response to the territorial issue to take such self-righteous acts. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been refraining from asserting Japan’s long-held claim that the four islands — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and Habomai — are “an inherent part of the territory of Japan.”
Russia’s strategy of using its claim to the four islands for a domestic election, while continuing talks with Japan over the issue, is problematic.
The tough stance that Russia has adopted recently is intolerable. It is particularly dangerous that Russia is heightening tensions by intensifying its military pressure.
In June, a Russian Air Force plane violated Japan’s airspace for the first time in four years by flying over the Pacific Ocean from Okinawa to the Northern Territories. Another Russian military aircraft then flew over Takeshima, which is also claimed by South Korea, in July. It was reportedly part of the first joint military exercise between Russia and China.
These provocative acts have raised suspicions that Russia is trying to overturn the United States’ military supremacy in Asia.
Russia is repeatedly trying to keep U.S. forces in Japan away from the Northern Territories during territorial talks with Tokyo obviously because Moscow wants to prevent the United States from wielding influence in the Far East.
Aug. 9 marks 74 years since Russia waged war against Japan at the end of World War II in 1945. Russia unilaterally nullified a bilateral neutrality pact, invaded the Northern Territories and occupied the islands after Japan’s surrender.
Prime Minister Abe intends to visit Russia next month to hold talks with President Putin. The prime minister can hold constructive talks only if he cautions the president against Russia’s provocations.