I wrote why giving away the Kurils (even just two of the islands) to Japan in exchange for fuzzy and unenforceable investment commitments is a really bad idea back in 2010 and I see no cause to change any of that.
One big problem, then as now, is that ordinary Russians are against it.
Fourth, the vast majority of Russians prefer keeping their country whole. According to the latest poll in 2009, some 82% of Russians were opposed to giving back the Kurils to Japan, while only 8% were in favor (views are even more unambiguous in the Russian Far East where only 4% supported the giveaway in 2005). Vadim Nikitin respects democracy, right? But it gets even better. It turns out that he isn’t the majority even amongst the Russian liberals he presumably identifies with. Some 57% of (liberal) SPS/Yabloko voters said that their attitudes to Medvedev would change for the worse if he gives away the Kurils, barely distinguishable from the all Russian average of 63%.
The latest poll, conducted at the end of December 2018, basically shows the same thing: 77% against, only 9% for.
It’s also intriguing to look at who exactly supports the transfer. First, it is young people: 14% support it, versus 6-8% of over 30’s. This perhaps reflects the naive cosmopolitanism and (as commenter Dmitry endlessly points out) Japanophilia of the younger set. The rich, people without an income (i.e., mostly students), and Moscow are all relatively more supportive of handing over the Kurils. But even they are still in a decided minority.
However, there is also an interesting regional pattern. As in the that old poll, the people most against the transfer are in the Far Eastern Federal District, i.e. the ones who would stand to benefit most from any post-Kurils Japanese investments into Russia (theoretically, anyway; as I said, I’m extremely skeptical). However, the region most in favor is the North Caucasus Federal District, where a stunning 18% support the transfer. The population of DICh constitutes half of this region, while Russians account for 30%. I sort of doubt that either liberal cosmopolitanism or Japonophilia has made many inroads into Kadyrov’s demesne.
This would however sync well with the “map of Russian patriotism” (where Chechnya and Ingushetia are dead last, and Dagestan not far behind) and my musings that (adjusting for electoral fraud) Chechnya is the most oppositionist region.
So, giving away the Kurils – the young won’t care as much – only 25% say their opinion of Putin would fall on account of that, versus 45% for the over 30s. But the young are not exactly all that hot for Putin anyway). Conversely, it would be the more patriotic Russian elements – the bedrock of Putin’s support post-Crimea – who’d be most against the transfer. As well as the nationalists, of course. Considering that Putin has also recently lost a lot of supporters amongst leftists and the middle-aged due to pensions reform, I just don’t see him risking going through with that.