A Response To Vadim Nikitin’s Arguments For The “Liberation” Of Khodorkovsky And The Kuriles

Over at his Foreign Policy Russia blog, and (provocatively?) a few days before Russia’s Unity Day, Vadim Nikitin penned the post Khodorkovsky = Kurils in which he argued for their mutual liberation from the Russian state. Whereas in their time both the conquest of the Kurils and the destruction of robber oligarch Khodorkovsky had been “effective metaphors for Russia’s resurgence”, they now constitute “an impediment for Russia’s modernization”. That’s because “you’re not supposed to know the outcome of a trial in advance” in a modern state, while internationally “what matters today is the volume of trade, not landmass; economic, not territorial, growth.”

Let’s start with the Kurils. Nikitin has an implausibly liberal conception of international relations, relying on the extremely fuzzy logic that unilateral Russian concessions to Japan will promote goodwill and more trade between them. There are immediate problems that any realist could identify. The most important factor is that this is a profoundly unequal exchange: Russia offers a sure and immediate concession, denying itself fishing grounds and barring its Pacific Navy from free strategic access to the ocean, in exchange for… well, nothing. Not even promises of reciprocal concessions from Japan. This strategy paid great dividends in the 1990’s, didn’t it?

Second, nobody sees Russia as a “nice” international player. To the contrary, the prevailing opinion (be it justified or not) is that hard balance of power calculus plays a much bigger role in its conduct than amongst Western countries. Let’s also not forget that in the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, Japan had officially forsworn any future claims to the Kurils (and even when repeatedly offered two of the four islands from the 1990’s to 2005 as part of a final settlement, Japan refused to play ball). Consider these two points together, and it emerges that the far likelier outcome of Nikitin’s proposal is that a unilateral Russia giveaway will be interpreted as a sign of weakness (or at best stupidity – which it really would be), and since weakness is contemptible, it will only breed demands for more.

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