Kuril islands, strategic chain at heart of Russia-Japan dispute

Moscow: Known as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, a string of desolate volcanic islands are at the heart of a feud between the two countries dating back to World War II.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin heads for talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Japan over the territorial dispute that has prevented the sides signing a formal treaty to end the war, here are some key facts on the islands:
Location: The disputed islands of Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shikotan and Habomai at their closest point lie just a few kilometres off the north coast of Hokkaido.
They are the southernmost territories in a volcanic chain that separates the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean.
They are located to the southeast of the Russian island of Sakhalin and are administratively part of the same region, although Tokyo considers them part of its Hokkaido prefecture and “illegally occupied by Russia”. Torn history: Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1786 claimed sovereignty over the Kuril islands after her government declared they were discovered by ‘Russian explorers’ and therefore “undoubtedly must belong to Russia”.
In the first treaty between tsarist Russia and Japan in 1855 the frontier between the two countries was drawn just north of the four islands closest to Japan.
Twenty years later in 1875, a new treaty handed Tokyo the entire chain, in exchange for Russia gaining full control of the island of Sakhalin.
Japan also seized back control of the southern half of Sakhalin after its crushing defeat of Moscow in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.
Soviet takeover: The Kuril islands have been back at the centre of a dispute between Moscow and Tokyo since Soviet troops invaded them in the final days of World War II. The USSR only entered into war with Japan on August 9, 1945 just after the United States had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The troops completed the takeover of the islands after Japan’s general surrender later that month.
Russia argues that US president Franklin Roosevelt promised Stalin he could take back the Kurils in exchange for joining the war against Japan at the Yalta conference in February 1945 at which the Allied leaders divided up the post-war world.
The Soviet capture of the islands has since prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a formal peace treaty to end the war, despite repeated attempts over the past 70 years to reach a deal.
In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev first offered to give Japan the two smallest islands, Shikotan and Habomai, in exchange for signing a peace treaty, but in the face of US opposition those talks went nowhere.
Strategic value: The islands’ current population is less than 17,000 people but the territory is “important from all points of view”, said Valery Kistanov, who heads the Centre for Japanese Studies at the Russian Institute of the Far East.
“They are rich in hot springs and minerals and rare metals such as rhenium” which is used in production of supersonic aircraft, he said.
But the “greatest value” of the islands lies in their geographical location at the meeting of warm and cool water currents, which is beneficial both for fisheries and the Russian navy too, he said.
Strategically, control of the islands ensures Russia has year-round access to the Pacific Ocean for its Pacific Fleet of warships and submarines based in Vladivostok since the strait between Kunashir and Iturup does not freeze over in winter. — AFP