Russia is still officially at war with Japan. Here's why

SOUTH KURIL ISLAND, RUSSIA - MARCH 16: An aerial view of South Kuril Islands and coastline in Kamchatka region, Russia on March 16, 2022. The South Kuril Islands, stretching approximately 1,300 km northeast from Hokkaido in Japan to Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia separating the Sea of Okhotsk from the north Pacific Ocean, are interesting tourism spots in the country. (Photo by Natalia Zakharova/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Russia calls them their Kuril Islands and Japan says they are its Northern Territories, but these islands have been at the heart of a standoff between the two nations for 77 years. (Getty)
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Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led to warnings from Moscow and Washington that one false move could precipitate a catastrophic global conflict.

But while the threat of World War Three remains a clear and present danger, it is perhaps little known that Russia remains locked in a territorial dispute with Japan that hasn't been resolved since World War Two and has meant the two sides have never signed a peace treaty.

And on Monday, 77 years after peace talks started between the two major powers, they broke down once again over Russia's continued invasion of Ukraine.

At the heart of the dispute is a disputed set of islands known in Russia as the Kuril Islands and in Japan as the Northern Territories.

Yahoo News UK outlines why a disputed set of islands means the two nations technically remain at war, and why talks have rumbled on for so long.

What happened?

On Monday evening, Russia officially withdrew from peace treaty talks following Tokyo's imposition of sanctions in response to Putin's invasion of Ukraine.

In a statement, the Russian Foreign Ministry said: "Under the current conditions Russia does not intend to continue negotiations with Japan on a peace treaty."

It accused Japan of adopting "openly unfriendly positions and attempts to damage the interests of our country".

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida speaks  at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan March 3, 2022. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool

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In response, Japan's prime minister, Fumio Kishida, criticised Russia's withdrawal. "This entire situation has been created by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and Russia's response to push this on to Japan-Russia relations is extremely unfair and completely unacceptable."

What sanctions has Japan taken?

Japan has imposed sanctions on 76 individuals, seven banks and 12 other bodies in Russia, including defence officials and its state-owned arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.

Last week, Japan said it plans to revoke Russia's most-favoured-nation trade status and ban imports of certain products.

Kishida has made clear Tokyo will remain aligned with the US and its Nato allies, saying: "Japan must resolutely continue to sanction Russia in co-operation with the rest of the world."

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JANUARY, 22 (RUSSIA OUT)  Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) shakes hands during their press conference at the Kremlin on January 22, 2019 in Moscow, Russia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has arrived to Moscow to talk about the Kuril Islands dispute. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
Russian President Vladimir Putin and then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in Moscow in January 2019 discussing a peace treaty. (Getty Images)

Are Russia and Japan really still at war?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, which finished in 1945, the nations involved in the conflict tried to come together to agree on various peace settlements after the complete surrender of Japan.

The Treaty of San Francisco, also called the Treaty of Peace with Japan, was signed by 49 countries in 1951, but the Soviet Union was not one of them.

Five years later, the two countries came together to sign the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which ended the state of war between them and restored diplomatic relations.

A message board reads messages demanding for the return of a group of islands, called Northern Territories by Japan and Southern Kuriles by Russia, is displayed in Nemuro, in Japan's nothern island of Hokkaido, April 14, 2017. REUTERS/Issei Kato
A message board on the Japanese island of Hokkaido demands the return of the Northern Territories to Japan from Russia, which calls them the Kuril Islands. (Reuters)

The declaration also included an agreement to sign a future peace treaty, but that has not yet been achieved.

This is why talks were still going on almost 80 years after World War II ended, before Russia's withdrawal this week.

So while the 1956 declaration ended fighting between Russia and Japan, the hostilities won't technically be over until a peace treaty is signed.

What is the dispute?

Each nation claims ownership over the islands in waters between the two countries.

This archipelago sits just off Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Japan took the islands during the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, but they were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

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They stretch 1,300km (810 miles) and are made up of 56 islands and have been administered by Russia ever since.

Japan claims the southernmost islands of the archipelago, which includes most of the largest and only habitable territory.

In 2016, Putin offered some hope that a resolution could be found, telling Japanese journalists that while there remained a "chance" it was difficult to say how big that was “because it depends on factors including the flexibility of our partners”.

The Russiam President has always been cautious of giving too much away, saying: “We think that we have no territorial problems. It’s Japan that thinks that it has a territorial problem with Russia,” he said in 2016.

Protesters demanding return of disputed islands claimed by both Japan and Russia, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuriles in Russia, march in Tokyo, Japan December 1, 2016, ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan this month. REUTERS/Issei Kato
Japanese protesters in Tokyo in December 2016 calling for the return of the Northern Territories to Japan from Russia, which calls them the Kuril Islands. (Reuters)

By 2020, little had been resolved and Russia's constitution was then amended to bar handing over territory to a foreign power.

However, last year, President Putin said that both Tokyo and Moscow wanted good relations and that it was absurd they had not reached a peace agreement.

According to Professor Yoko Hirose at Keio University, the normalisation of relations between the two powers could lead to future economic co-operation that could have a stabilising effect on the region.

It may also act as a buffer to prevent closer co-operation between China and Russia.

However, while Putin continues with his campaign in Ukraine, then it seems unlikely there will be any resolution in the near future.

Watch: Russians protest against potential Kuril Islands handover to Japan

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