Moscow triggers diplomatic row over disputed islands after sensing weakness
LONDON: President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia has triggered a huge diplomatic row with Japan after staging a visit on Monday to the Southern Kuril Islands, whose ownership is disputed between the two nations.
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has characterised Mr Medvedev's decision to become the first Russian leader to set foot on territory over which Japan still claims sovereignty as 'extremely regrettable'.
But the authorities in Moscow remain unrepentant: Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has slammed the Japanese reaction as 'unacceptable' and 'senseless', adding that the Southern Kuril islands are 'Russian land' which the country's President 'can visit whenever he chooses to'.
The timing of the flare-up has caught political observers by surprise, since it comes soon after the Japanese were embroiled in a separate territorial spat with China, and barely two weeks before the Russian President is due in Japan for a regional summit.
Yet in many respects, that was precisely the point. By raising the Kuril issue at such a sensitive moment, Moscow hopes to force Tokyo's hand and remind its neighbours that Russia remains an Asian power which cannot be ignored.
According to latest opinion polls, up to 80 per cent of ordinary Russians view the Kuril Islands as an integral part of their territory, a reward for the defeat of Japanese aggression in World War II.
The reality is more complicated. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan only a week before the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. The Southern Kuril Islands - specks of land which the Japanese refer to as the Northern Territories - were coveted largely for their strategic significance: they blocked the Russian fleet's access to the Pacific.
And the seizure is regarded by Russia as sweet revenge for an older humiliation: the defeat of Russian forces in a war with Japan, back in 1905.
At various times, Russia had offered to hand back some of the islands, in return for a permanent settlement of the dispute. But every Japanese government held out for the return of all the territories, and the deadlock continued.
Diplomats in Moscow claim that Mr Medvedev had planned to visit the Kuril Islands in September, and was prevented from doing so only by bad weather.
They also claim that Japan knew of his intentions well in advance.
Mr Viktor Pavlyanteko, who runs the Japanese Research Centre at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said Tokyo's anger is just 'artificial'.
One explanation for the visit is Russia's own internal politics. Until now, Mr Medvedev had tended to adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards his country's neighbours, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stuck to an uncompromising position.
However, with fresh presidential elections due in 2012, Mr Medvedev may have decided he needs to burnish his own nationalist credentials, and that a visit to the Kuril Islands offered the perfect opportunity.
There are also clear signs that, after decades of neglect, Russia is determined to become an active player on the Asian scene. Late last year, Mr Medvedev visited Singapore and Mongolia; more recently he attended the Asean summit in Vietnam, and will be at the Group of 20 gathering in South Korea this month. Mr Putin visited both China and India this year.
Apart from the objective of engaging with Asia's growing economies, the Russians have a particular need to develop Siberia, their own huge expanse of Asian land, rich in natural resources but sparsely populated.
For a while, the Japanese were regarded as the most promising investors in Siberia; Japanese companies were big players in the development of the Sakhalin oil and gas deposits, not far from the disputed Kuril Islands.
But such interest in Japan has waned, as Russian liquefied natural gas facilities are coming on stream, and new pipelines deliver oil and gas to China and the Pacific ports.
Mr Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs journal, says Russia's latest 'Far East Development Plan' - adopted last December - envisages attracting additional capital from China, India and South Korea, to 'diversify the country's foreign policy'.
Meanwhile, economic ties with Japan have nosedived, particularly after the Russian authorities slapped new duties on second-hand Japanese cars, which formed the bulk of the trade with the Siberian regions. The Russians feel that it is now Japan's turn to chase them.
Moscow remains interested in ending its lingering territorial spat with Tokyo. But, having seen how the recent Chinese-Japanese dispute over the Diaoyutai or Senkaku islands unfolded, Russia has concluded that Japan is an easy target. 'Japan's foreign policy is in complete disarray,' says Mr Alexander Panov, who heads Russia's diplomatic academy.
An anonymous posting on one of Russia's top websites summed up the feelings of the country's leaders: 'Japan is in a deplorable situation. Its economy has stagnated for over 20 years; it is too weak to do much other than complain.'