Staunton, November 18 – Two days ago, the Rosbalt news agency reported that Moscow is discussing the possible sale to Japan of at least a portion of the disputed Kurile Islands (the Northern Territories, in Japanese parlance) and is “preparing public opinion for such a decision” (rosbalt.ru/like/2018/11/16/1747037.html).
That announcement has sparked an emotional outcry among many Russians who view any loss of Russian-controlled territory as an act of treason, but it has also led to some more thoughtful discussions of what such a decision says about the nature of Kremlin thinking and what it may mean for the future of Eurasia.
Two of these discussions are especially intriguing.
In the first, Igor Eidman, a Russian sociologist who writes commentaries of Deutsche Welle, says the idea of selling the Kuriles to Japan reflects “the main leitmotif of the policy of Russia’s ruling oligarchy – the monetarization of the resources it controls” (facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=2121065507956417&id=100001589654713).
Its operating principle, he continues, is that “’everything is for sale,’ that everything must be transformed into money” and that money must go into the pockets of the oligarchs, typically to be held in offshore accounts. First, the oligarchs took over government agencies to pump money out of Russia and more recently they have been selling off Russia’s natural resources.
“Not so long ago, they began to literally monetarize the blood” of Russians prepared to serve their interests in so called “private military companies,” men who have been sold off as “cannon fodder to Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic.
With that, it might have seemed that “’all that could be betrayed and sold had been’ … but no, one valuable resource hadn’t yet been monetarized – vast Russian territories. It is time to sell them.” And Putin will be willing to do so for what many will see at cheap prices, Eidman continues.
“The sale of territories under its control is absolutely in the logic of the Russian bureaucracy accustomed as it is to enrich itself by any means possible. Apparently, the first steps in this direction have already been done. Under Putin, no fewer than 337 square kilometers have been handed over to China. Probably still larger deals are ahead.”
According to Eidman, “the appetites of the ruling oligarchy are growing; new assets have to be put on the market” to satisfy them. “And the most valuable of these is the enormous territory of Russia itself.” So much for patriotism when money is concerned.
And in the second of these commentaries, Aleksey Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy, says that unlike many skeptics, he is convinced that Putin is ready under definite conditions and under the cover of a specific sauce” to return some or all of the Kuriles to Japan (echo.msk.ru/programs/observation/2316456-echo/).
Some argue that having annexed Crimea with the one hand, Putin can hardly give away the Kuriles with the other, but Venediktov says that is to misunderstand the situation, even if returning the Kuriles to Japan will help Moscow escape “the blockade” it has faced since the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
Putin doesn’t view the two places linked in any broader sense, the editor suggests, because for him “Crime is ‘genetically ours,’” something whose return to Ukraine cannot even be contemplated. But the two events do reflect Putin’s “model of the world,” a model based on the Yalta-Potsdam” one set up at the end of World War II.
According to that model, Venediktov continues, “each great power,” the US and the USSR then, now Russia, the US, China and the EU, is to be responsible “for order in its sector.” That could open the way to more changes of borders in Eurasia, changes that in Putin’s mind he has the right to make and no one else has the right to object to.