The 11th September visit of Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev is the latest in a string of visits by high-ranking officials to the Kuril Islands, including a trip by President Dmitry Medvedev in November, after which the Russian leader pledged to bolster the defences of the disputed territories.
The islands lie to the north of the Japanese island of Hokkaido and to the south of Russia's Sakhalin peninsula. They were administered by Japan until the end of the Second World War, when Russian forces overran them. The islands have been a point of contention between Moscow and Kyoto ever since, particularly given growing expectations about the quantity of oil and gas in the surrounding sea.
Russia has engaged in regular sabre-rattling over the islands, insisting that they are an indivisible part of Russia and promising to deploy advanced weapon systems to defend them.
Despite the recent spike in tensions, however, both Japanese and Russian officials have expressed their desire to settle the dispute amicably. On 9th September Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba that Moscow is happy to discuss a peace treaty “in a calm atmosphere”, although he reiterated that Russia ruled out any negotiations of its sovereignty over the Kurils.
Japan's new prime minister Yosihiko Noda, in a telephone conversation with Medvedev, also stated his willingness to sign a peace treaty and settle the issue. He may try and seek a resolution on the Kurils as a way of making his mark in office, although the range of other challenges facing him may make the dispute with Russia somewhat less of a priority.
In the meantime, Russia's military manoeuvres around the disputed area are likely to continue. The Defence Ministry has dismissed Japanese concern, pointing out that its strategic bombers did not violate Japan's airspace; Russia is also planning to conduct large-scale naval drills in the region.
Sources: Russia Today, RIA Novosti, Voice of Russia