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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Dispute Turns Hot

Despite recent announcements by the Russian Coast Guard in the Far East that they will sink any foreign vessel that is illegally fishing in the area around the southern Kuril islands, violations of Russia's territorial waters by Japanese fishermen continue.

Just two weeks ago a shot from a Coast Guard cannon disabled a vessel manned by Japanese fishermen near the island of Anuchino. However, this bitter experience has not taught its lesson, even though one of the fisherman suffered a serious spinal injury. The latest reports from the Coast Guard's press service show that this was not the last incident between the two countries.

In one incident, five foreign vessels of undetermined nationality were recently discovered in Russian waters around the disputed islands, and they were chased out by Coast Guard ships. This incident occurred at night during a thick fog in Russian waters. At the sight of the Russian vessel, the trespassers were able to flee.

Lieutenant General Vitaly Sedykh, the military's commander of the Pacific Border District, stated recently that Russian border guards in the future will act decisively to intercept any vessel violating Russia's borders. Although the Russians "do not want blood spilled and unnecessary casualties," the violators themselves seem to be making this inevitable.

Over the last year, nearly 1,000 incidents have been registered in this region. The Coast Guard has detained several Japanese vessels for illegal fishing. A number of them have been confiscated, and several fishermen have been convicted and are now serving terms in Russian prisons.

Sedykh was at pains to emphasize that he had attempted to negotiate joint patrols with the Japanese in the region in order to end the illegal fishing. However, the Japanese have so far refused to respond to his overtures. Further, a number of international observers believe that latest incidents have been indirectly provoked by the Japanese authorities themselves. The long-standing agreement between Russia and Japan that gives Japanese fishermen an opportunity to buy rights to fish in Russia's far-eastern territorial waters has not been publicized in the region of the Kurils. Japanese authorities have forbidden Japanese citizens from entering into any commercial agreement involving the islands or the waters around them as part of their call for sanctions against the "Russian occupation."

Sedykh also stated that the Coast Guard "had not found any irregularities in the actions of Russian border guards when they opened fire on Japanese violators." He expressed particular concern over the fact that some flagrant violations of the borders had occurred within sight of Japanese patrol ships. Two months ago the Russian Coast Guard presented the Japanese consulate in Vladivostok with a proposal to negotiate joint measures to secure order along the border. "Unfortunately, we have not yet received a response," Sedykh said.

Moscow in the meantime has been preparing for new violations by Japanese fishermen. In the very near future, the Pacific Coast Guard is expected to take delivery of some small, but fast cutters that are capable of effectively combating the trespassers. In connection with these incidents, the number of Coast Guard vessels in the region has been significantly increased. Vice Admiral Nikolai Kudinov, the commander of Russia's Coast Guard, reminded the world recently that according to the Russian law On State Borders, "the decision to open fire during extreme situations rests personally with the captain of the ship involved."

It would seem that the recent incidents involving the use of arms have forced Tokyo to seek out contacts with the Russian side. It has recently become known that unofficial consultations between the two countries have begun and that the problem of the fishing rights of Japanese fishermen near the southern Kurils is being discussed.

Many experts both in Russia and Japan feel that the best formula for solving this problem, which is poisoning the already complex relations between the two countries, is precisely Russia's proposal for a bilateral agreement under which Japanese fishermen would be able to fish the waters in exchange for compensation. Russia first made this proposal in February.

Only recently, the Japanese government decided to agree in principle to the idea and to enter into negotiations in Moscow this fall to work out the plan. However, reports indicate that the Japanese Foreign Ministry is decisively opposed to this plan. Diplomats there argue that a commercial arrangement concerning fish from the waters around the southern Kurils would call into question Tokyo's resolve on the matter of regaining its "northern territories," and would weaken Japan's position in territorial negotiations with Russia.

The recent incidents occurred on the eve of the beginning of the third stage of Russia's operation, Fishing-94. This operation, which began August 20, was widely announced by Russian authorities throughout the region. It is timed to coincide with the harvest of various species of Pacific salmon and will be the most extensive stage of the operation. A powerful group of Coast Guard vessels will participate, as well as a force of airplanes and helicopters. It will be a joint operation involving cooperation from the State Fishing Committee, the Environment Ministry, the Federal Counterintelligence Service and other interested agencies.

During the first two stages of the operation, 20 vessels were detained and fines of more than 200 million rubles ($92,600) were levied. The value of the resources that the operation has prevented from being stolen is place by authorities at between 250 and 300 billion rubles.

The goal of the third stage of the operation is prevent violations of Russia's territorial waters and to safeguard Russia's natural resources. Inevitably, it seems, this will involve further -- possibly violent -- incidents in this disputed region.

Gennady Charodeyev is a reporter for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.