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Russia’s Lost Opportunity with Japan

TOKYO – President Dmitri A. Medvedev visit to the south Kuril Islands, which the Soviet Red Army seized from Japan in the closing days of World War II, has demonstrated in unmistakable terms that Russia has no intention of returning the mineral-rich islands. This visit is not only a lost opportunity, given Russia’s need to modernize its economy and the help Japan could provide, but a grave strategic error in view of Russia’s increasing worries about China’s ambitions in Asia, which includes Russia’s lightly populated Siberian provinces.

Russia, however, is only now beginning to realize that it must be much more pro-active in protecting its national-security interests in the Pacific region. The problem is that Russia’s focus is wrong-headed. For coinciding with China’s recent naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, the Russian Armed Forces carried out part of its “Vostok 2010” drills (involving 1,500 troops) on Etorofu, the largest island among the Russian-occupied Northern Territories of Japan. The entire Vostok 2010 exercise involved more than 20,000 troops.

Russia’s illegal occupation of the south Kuril Islands began on August 18, 1945, three days after Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration (or the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender), which ended the Pacific War. Stalin’s Red Army nonetheless invaded the Chishima Islands, and has occupied them, Southern Karafuto (or Southern Sakhalin), and the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai – which had never been part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union at any point in history – ever since.

Indeed, the lower house of Russia's Duma passed a resolution earlier this year designating September 2 as the anniversary of the “real” end of World War II, effectively making it a day to commemorate the Soviet Union's victory over Japan – and thus an attempt to undermine Japan’s claim that the occupation of the islands came after WWII’s end.