The general knowledge of time on the island depends, curiously enough, on the direction of the wind" quipped John Millington Syne. As the Russia-Ukraine War ravages in the third month, the winds in Kuril Islands are heating up once again with Japan reviving the dispute of Kuril Islands fiercely. Kuril Islands are a group of 56 islands which stretch approximately 1300 kilometres from Hokkaido in Japan to the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the north Pacific Ocean. These islands have an area of 10,503 square kilometres and a population of 20,000 and are a volcanic archipelago part of the Sakhalin Oblast (district) of Russia. The Kuril Islands is a dispute between Russia and Japan over four southernmost Kuril Islands. After the defeat of Japan by the erstwhile Soviet Union in World War II, Sakhalin Islands including the Kuril Islands were taken over by Soviet Union from Japan. After the breakup of USSR into 15 countries on December 26, 1991 Sakhalin Oblast became part of Russia, that was one of the 15 countries carved out of USSR. Japan lays claim to the southernmost four islands of the Kuril Islands which are called by Japan as the Northern Territories or Southern Chishima and considers them as an integral part of the Nemuro Subprefecture of Hokkaido Prefecture. The four disputed islands are Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai. The San Francisco Peace Treaty signed between the Allies and Japan on September 08, 1951 stated that Japan has no rights over Kuril Islands. However, Japan claims that these four disputed islands are not part of the San Francisco Treaty. During the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, Russia offered Japan the ownership of the two smaller islands – Shikotan and Habomai in exchange for renunciation of claims on the two bigger islands – Iturup and Kunashir. But Japan rejected this settlement. On July 07, 2005 the European Parliament recommended the returning of the four disputed islands to Japan, but Russia outrightly refused. In 2006 President Vladimir Putin once again reiterated the 1956 offer to Japan but Japan again refused it. On February 18, 2009 the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso met in Sakhalin Island to resolve the Kuril Islands dispute. But the meeting failed to resolve the deadlock. On February 10, 2011 President Dmitry Medvedev deployed advanced weapons and the army on the Kuril Islands. Many rounds of talks between the Russian and the Japanese leaders to resolve this dispute were held between 2011 and 2022, but all these talks failed to resolve the dispute. On March 07, 2022 in the backdrop of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war Fumio Kishida, the Prime Minister of Japan declared that the four disputed Kuril Islands are an integral part of Japan. As a result, on March 21, 2022 Russia announced its withdrawal from the peace treaty talks with Japan and four days later on March 25, Russia started military drills on the Kuril Islands with a brigade strength. In response Japan too conducted military exercises jointly with USA and practised retaking the islands with US armoured and air support. On March 31, 2022 Japan redesignated the four disputed islands as being under "illegal occupation" in its draft for the Diplomatic Bluebook 2022. Thus, the dispute of Kuril Islands simmers once again between Russia and Japan after decades of uneasy calm. A famous Spanish proverb says "He is out of danger who rings the alarm-bell". Russia has rung the alarm bell by militarising the Kuril Islands. Is Japan out of danger? Time alone will tell.
Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd)
About the Writer – The writer who retired from the Corps of Engineers of the Indian Army is an alumnus of NDA, Khadakwasla and IIT Kanpur. He is a M.Tech in Structures has also done MBA and LLB and is a prolific writer and a public speaker. He Tweets and Koos at @JassiSodhi24. The views expressed are personal.
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