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Sabres rattle in the east as Russia shows its tough side

Kuril Island With Old Military Relic and Dmitri MedvedevTension is ratcheting up over the Kuril islands as Seiji Maehara, the Japanese foreign minister, prepares for talks in Moscow on Friday. Russia is building up the ramparts on the islands and both sides are firing salvoes of stinging indictments.

Russia is investing heavily in the Kurils' defences, after President Medvedev's visit showed up crumbling 1940s gun turrets, and is sending two new warships out to join the Pacific fleet that patrols the region. [article continues below map]Map of Sea of Okhotsk Including Kuril Islands

Re-equipping the armoured division that garrisons the eastern outpost is a routine operation, Ekho Moskvy reported, but it comes at an unfortunate time

Meanwhile both sides are digging in their positions. "Russia's occupation of them are groundless based on international laws," Maehara told Reuters.

And Sergei Prikhodko, Medvedev's foreign policy adviser, was no less equivocal. "The sovereignty of the Russian Federation in respect to the Kuril islands will not be subject to any review ­ either today or tomorrow," he told Russian news agencies, Agence France Presse reported.

A turn in the tide

"We are definitely experiencing at least a mini-crisis in relations with Japan, I cannot remember any other period after the end of the cold war when the issue of the Kuril islands was so visible and so emotional on both sides," Andrei Kortunov, Eurasia Foundation president, told The Moscow News.

"We can definitely see an escalation of tension and an escalation of rhetoric at the highest level and it is both unfortunate and unprecedented, if you look at the most recent history of the region," he said.

No softies

"Russia believes Japan has become a do-nothing government over security and sovereignty issues and has begun to take advantage of the situation," Professor Shigeki Hakamada, a Russia expert at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, told the Japan Times. "And Russia is clearly pushing to make it a fait accompli that the islands are its territory."

And this is an opportune moment for the Kremlin to take advantage of that.

"One could imagine that the Russian government must demonstrate that it is strong and that it is not a government of softies, that it defends its interests and that it will not compromise on issues of security or territorial integrity," Kortunov said. "In terms of sovereignty claims, the two nations have clashed head-on over this issue," says Hakamada. "The sovereignty of a state affects the basic principle of a country's existence, and it is difficult for either side to compromise."


The US may have given its cautious backing to Japan's cause, but Russia is in no mood for conciliation.

While the disputed territories are a matter of principle to Japan they have become so alongside political expediency for Russia.

"As far as Russia is concerned we are approaching the end of a political cycle here and the government wants to demonstrate that it is not just about concessions to the West, that they can be tough...Of course Japan is an easy target because we don't have any kind of political relations with the Japanese to put in jeopardy," Kortunov said by telephone.

And as far as economic relations go, Japan will continue to sell cars and consumer electronic goods in Russia, so there is no serious leverage to punish Moscow with, Kortunov said.

Last minute seizure

The South Kuril islands were seized by Soviet forces in the last few days of World War II. The USSR declared war on Japan on Aug. 9, 1945 and six days later the Empire of the Sun raised the white flag. The Soviet onslaught continued, however, and seized all of the Kurils.

The 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty obliged Japan to give up the Kurils and its half of Sakhalin to the USSR.

But Japan's government considers that the treaty did not include the four disputed islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islet, and so the dispute continues.

VJ day?

To add to the tensions, Russian MPs from the United Russia and Liberal Democrat parties have reportedly called for an official celebration of the Soviet victory over Japan.

LifeNews reports on a proposal to make September 3 a tribute to the conclusion of the war in the Pacific, although the government has apparently dismissed the idea by highlighting the current Sep. 2 day to mark the cessation of fighting in World War II.

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