I’m going to keep this brief. Russo-Japanese relations are bad. They have been bad for most of the modern era. Russia has long had a foreign, looming presence in East Asia, and Japan was its oldest rival for power in the region.
By the midpoint of the 1800s China became a hot-spot for great power politics. The imperial powers of Europe were eager to batter down the walls to the world’s most lucrative market. Russia, which was consolidating its hold in Siberia at this point in manifest-destiny fashion, had the odd advantage of being adjacent to China and, as such, concentrated on the northeast region known as Manchuria. Japan, which was sewing the seeds of inevitable conquest in Korea, also used Manchuria as its point of entry into China.
Additionally we should briefly mention Sakhalin, a large isle due north of Japan, and the Kuriles, which connect Japan to the Kamchatka peninsula. These islands aren’t particularly valuable but they have changed hands (or have been split) several times throughout history. Currently Russia maintains control over them, which is a massive strain on relations. The Sakhalin and Kurile issue just highlights one of the recurring ironies of Russian history: the country with the most land doesn’t want to give up any.
Relations in the late 1800s were tense, shifting, and unclear. Multipolarity in East Asia required a careful balance-of-power, and yesterday’s friends could easily become tomorrow’s enemies. It was all good sport for the great powers, just so long as China remained subdued and nobody gained the upper hand.
Balance-of-power politics are unstable at best, and it was only inevitable that Japan and Russia would come to blows in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. Japan invaded the Russian outpost of Port Arthur and a bitter struggle began. Poor discipline, ailing bureaucracy, and an apathetic Tsar would ultimately contribute to Russian defeats, but the simple undeniable fact was that Japan was truly coming into its own as a great power. Nobody expected an upstart Asian country to defeat one of Europe’s mightiest and oldest powers, but sure enough Japan won. The ultimately humiliation came in the Tsushima Straights, where a Russian force sailed around Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia only to be destroyed by a far superior Japanese Navy. The Navy was the pride of Tsarist Russia, built from nothing by Peter the Great, and its defeat was a crushing blow. Eventually Russia and Japan agreed to a peace brokered by Theodore Roosevelt, with Japan gaining territory in Manchuria and Sakhalin.
Japan fought alongside Britain, France, and Russia in World War I, mostly to grab weak German colonies in China, although this did little to ameliorate Russo-Japanese relations. The abdication of the Tsar and subsequent Revolution only further complicated matters: an opportunistic Japan joined an international coalition in trying to stabilize Russia. The coalition was inconsequential in the unfolding of the Russian Civil War, although it succeeded in deepening Russian mistrust of the outside world and also gave Japan time to consolidate its holdings in Northeast Asia.
Renouncing imperialism and focusing on intensive inward development, the USSR withdrew from the great power game in China. The devastation of World War I sufficiently weakened other European powers, leaving Japan as the only major contender in the region. With growing imperial designs and increasing militarism, Japan eventually came to dominate East Asia, conquering parts of China in the 1930s and expanding into Southeast Asia as World War II unfolded.
The Soviets and Japanese did fight a brief war in East Asia in the late 1930s. It was here that Marshal Zhukov earned his mettle. Clearly, hostilities were still alive. However, despite a sour history the USSR and Japan managed to sign a non-aggression pact that held until the very end of WWII. The rationale was simple enough: the Soviets wanted to focus exclusively on Germany while the Japanese wanted to sure up their footing on the mainland while shifting focus to an increasingly tempestuous Pacific. Despite a legacy of hatred and mistrust, and in spite of the fact that the United Nations and Axis were locked in total war, peace held for years.
Once the Allied victory became apparent, Stalin began to plan on breaking the peace. He announced his intentions at the Big Three Conferences, which sought to force a plan for the postwar world. Yalta produced the most substantive framework. The Soviets were to declare war on Japan several months after victory in Europe was secured. For their entry the Soviets were to be rewarded with Sakhalin, the Kuriles, and holdings in Manchuria, among them the warm water Port Arthur. The language explicitly mentions reversing Japanese gains from the Russo-Japanese War: clearly some historical tensions survived the 1917 Revolution. China was conspicuously absent from the Yalta Conference, and they certainly would have objected to the rewarding of land to the Soviets. Keep in mind that such concessions were deemed necessary by Churchill and Roosevelt who both didn’t see the war in Asia coming to a quick ending. This was before the atomic bomb was completed…
In July 1945 the Big Three met in Potsdam. Stalin found himself on uncomfortable terms with the new members of the group. Elections replaced Churchill with Attlee, and the death of Roosevelt saw the arrival of Truman. Stalin must have been disappointed to see the promises of Yalta evaporate. Confident in the power of the bomb and resentful to see the Soviets profit in a theatre where they shed little blood, Soviet involvement in the Asian peace was essentially written out of the Potsdam Declaration. The Americans proceeded to bring the war in Asia to a conclusion by dropping atomic weapons, but Stalin still managed to force his hand. The Soviets broke their peace with Japan in the days between the atomic bombings, and Operation August Storm steamrolled the tired and ill-supplied Japanese garrison in Manchuria. The Soviets pushed deep, managing to reach the 38th parallel that divides modern-day North and South Korea (the division results directly from this Soviet involvement). The USSR also established control over Sakhalin Island. It is feasible to assume that the Soviets may have conducted an invasion of Japan if the war continued, a fear which surely factored into Japan’s decision to surrender.
The USSR used its hold in Manchuria (they retained control of Port Arthur) to give the Chinese Communists the upper hand in the Chinese Civil War, and the subsequent Korean War made East Asia overwhelming Communist. As containment became the modus operandi of US Cold War policy, Japan became a bastion for containing the Soviet-Chinese menace on the mainland, which likely did little to reverse the mutual resentment between the Soviets and Japanese. The Sino-Soviet schism under Khrushchev would once again return East Asia to uncertain multi-polarity. The Soviets and Japanese might have had a mutual interest in containing China, but with the United States-Chinese detente such an alliance never took off.
As abruptly as our story begins, it ends. Russian-Japanese relations remain very cold and haven’t really changed much since the end of the Cold War. Sakhalin and the Kuriles remain a bone of contention, and a compromise remains elusive. Japan remains a steadfast ally of the United States, and Russia’s on-and-off backing of North Korea does nothing to heal relations with Japan. With a potentially rising China and a nuclear North Korea it may be essential for rapprochement to occur if Russia and Japan wish to remain secure in East Asia, and politics may breed strange bedfellows. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Putin recently and the two seem to have struck a conciliatory mood. A Russo-Japanese renewal may occur in the near future, but it remains impossible as long as historical misgivings remain. The disputed status of Sakhalin and the Kuriles has come to embody this long-standing conflict, and I think these islands will be the key factor in any negotiations. If their status remains conflicted any chance of cooperation is likely to be impossible. But if Russia were to cede territory, or if Japan were to let go of claims, then negotiations could be fruitful. Given that these islands were bought with blood, I find any sort of compromise highly unlikely. Japan and Russia will most likely continue to tolerate a frozen peace.