Russian President Vladimir Putin, delivering his annual Address to the Federal Assembly on January 15, proposed a number of amendments to the Russian Constitution adopted in 1993. According to the President, they are important "for the further development of Russia as a rule-of-law welfare state".
By his direction, a working group was organized to arrange proposals to amend the Constitution which deals with draft amendments from both the legislative and executive authorities and the public.
During the Commission's February 13 meeting attended by Putin himself, one of its members, Russian movie star Vladimir Mashkov, proposed "to fix in the Constitution a ban on the alienation of Russian territories". The actor noted that there are fears in Russia that after Putin leaves the presidential chair, there may be claims to the territories of the Crimea or the Southern Kuril islands. According to him, this should not be possible or even negotiable.
Putin's reaction was positive: "We have talks under way with our partners on certain questions, but I like the idea itself", instructing to formulate an amendment to this effect "in the right way".
It should be noted that no other issues related to Russia's foreign policy were discussed that day.
The constitutional adjustment is now the core of Russia's domestic policy. In this context, there has been a change of government, major economic reforms are planned, as well as social care expansion. The power system reform laid down in Putin's constitutional amendments should be carried out following the plebiscite set for April. Amendments put forward by the public may also be adopted there.
As reflected by Putin's reaction, the "territorial" amendment has strong chances to be included in the voting lists, and therefore approved by the population afterwards. Russian public opinion, as confirmed by numerous surveys, is extremely negative over territorial concessions.
In this sense, the "status quo" confirmation as regards the Crimea and the Southern Kuril islands works into the reputation of the authorities.
Besides, except for Ukraine and Japan, Russia has no border problems with its neighbors at the interstate level. The border with China and the shelf with Norway are settled issues. However, the treaty with Estonia has not been ratified, but the problem there is not the border line, but the divergence of historical assessments of nearly century-old bilateral relations.
The fate of the Crimea, which became part of Russia in 2014, is out of question, as Moscow states. However, Russia is engaged in an intensive dialogue with Japan on the issue of concluding a peace treaty, which also implies resolving the issue of Southern Kuril islands' status. The legal basis for negotiations is the Joint Declaration of 1956, according to which Russia undertakes to transfer these territories to Japan after a peace treaty is concluded.
The negotiations have been desperate so far. Russia demands recognition of its sovereignty over the islands as a starting point, while Japan is reluctant to do so. Moreover, there is a problem of the islands' potential use by the US armed forces in case of their transfer to Japan. Moscow is absolutely uncomfortable with this, bringing the situation to a deadlock.
The adoption of the "territorial" amendment to the Russian Constitution by means of a plebiscite deprives negotiations on the status of the islands of any legal basis. It is in this sense that Mashkov's proposal and Vladimir Putin's response should be understood.
But does this mean that negotiations between Russia and Japan on a peace treaty are going to be curtailed? If nothing but the "territorial problem" matters to Tokyo, then yes. Alternatively, if Moscow and Tokyo are interested in expanding political contacts, including amid the military-political and economic situation in the Far East, the political dialogue will go on.