Russia and Japan trade barbs over islands


Russia-Japan tensions flared up yesterday (Sunday) as ex-Russian president Medvedev said Japan’s “militarisation” was complicating the region.

He was referring in part to Russia’s long-running territorial dispute with Japan over a string of islands across the mouth of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Why do we care? It’s one of those historical disputes still shaping the world:

  • 🤝 Japan and Russia set an initial border through the islands in 1855
  • 💣 But they fought a 1904-05 war, and the Soviets then seized more islands in the days after Japan surrendered to the Allies in 1945, so
  • 🕊️ The two haven’t been able to sign a post-WWII peace treaty

Why do Japan and Russia care so much about these islands?

  • 🏝️ One of the Russian-held islands is just 3.5km off Japan’s northeast, complicating Tokyo’s efforts to concentrate its forces elsewhere to balance China and North Korea
  • 🚢 The islands give Russia a chokehold over the Sea of Okhotsk, which Moscow uses as a staging base for its Pacific fleet, and
  • 🛢️ The area also holds fish, oil, gas and rhenium (used in aerospace)

Plus, this dispute goes beyond Russia and Japan:

  • 🇨🇳 China sided with Japan in the 1960s as China-Russia ties frayed, but it’s now quietly withdrawing that position in a nod to Moscow
  • 🇺🇦 Ukraine is repaying Japan by backing Tokyo’s island claims, and
  • 🇮🇷 Even Iran just weighed in for Japan, in a separate jab at Moscow

To cap it all off, reports just emerged that Russia has had to redeploy air defences from the disputed islands back towards Ukraine.

Intrigue’s take: There’s centuries of conflict shoe-horned into nine bullet points above, but the big picture we’re trying to paint here is that:

  • The more Russia pours into its invasion of Ukraine, the less it can back its interests elsewhere around the world, and
  • World peace is a delicate patchwork, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine tugging at some of that patchwork’s many trans-continental threads.

Also worth noting:

  • Russia’s withdrawal of air defence from the disputed islands comes after Ukraine reportedly destroyed Russian air defences in Crimea last week.
  • Japan’s defence ministry just sought a record $53B as the country aims to double defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2027, citing China and North Korea as its main concerns.
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