Despite Ukraine Tensions, Japan and Russia Ease Into Better Ties

Commentary | July 21, 2015

In an article for World Politics Review, EWI Fellow Jonathan Miller surveys the improving diplomatic relationship between Russia and Japan.

Ties between Russia and Japan are slowly picking up steam again after a 16-month chill following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Earlier this month, Shotaro Yachi, Japan’s national security adviser, traveled to Moscow and met with his Russian counterpart to discuss President Vladimir Putin’s plans to visit Japan later this year. And despite ongoing tensions over Ukraine, there are also signs that Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, may travel to Russia in the coming months to prepare for a potential Putin visit. Japan-Russia cooperation is also continuing on the security front with bilateral maritime security drills, focused primarily on border security, slated to take place later this month near Russia’s Sakhalin Island.

Since his election in late 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expended considerable diplomatic energy toward repairing Tokyo’s relationship with Moscow. Abe has met with Putin on numerous occasions, including two official visits to Russia. Indeed, Abe’s policy shift on Russia was so dramatic that his visit to Russia in 2013 marked the first official trip by a Japanese leader in a decade. Nevertheless, Japan still maintains a need to balance its desire to improve ties with Russia with its obligations, as a member of the G-7 and chief regional ally of the United States, to sanction Moscow for its involvement in the continuing fighting in eastern Ukraine. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Tokyo fell in line with its G-7 partners and implemented a limited set of economic sanctions on Moscow.

Now, even with Ukraine unresolved, Abe is looking to reinvigorate his policy embrace of Russia and maintain a nuanced approach to Putin. This push for engagement is premised on three main pillars. First, Abe remains convinced of his need to resolve the longstanding territorial dispute with Russia over the southern Kuril Islands, known as the Northern Territories to Japan. Second, both Tokyo and Moscow share a desire to enhance their energy partnership. And, finally, both sides have a strategic interest in closer relations as a potential balance or hedge against China’s rapid rise in the region.

On the island spat, there appears to be momentum toward a resolution after decades of failed discussions between the two sides. While Abe has prioritized Japan getting the islands back, he has subtly indicated his desire to compromise on Tokyo’s longstanding insistence that all four of the disputed islands be returned to Japan. Indeed, in early 2013, Abe sent former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to Moscow as a special envoy on territorial issues. Before his trip, Mori floated the idea of a compromise: “splitting” control of the four disputed islands. Abe has officially stepped back from such an idea, maintaining the position that all of the islands be fully returned to Japan. However, Abe knows that such a one-sided resolution would never be backed in Russia. Japan and Russia continue to have backroom discussions on a potential resolution to the islands dispute, which has resulted in the two sides failing to officially sign a peace treaty ending hostilities from World War II. The stage appears set for a grand bargain on the islands during Abe’s tenure; both sides indicate that the conditions have never been better for a breakthrough.

Moreover, in addition to talks on the island row, Abe and Putin have each announced plans for stronger economic cooperation, with a focus on bolstering Japanese investment in Russia’s far east. The two also have agreed to a more enhanced bilateral energy dialogue. Since Japan shut down its nuclear power plants after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, it has looked to Russia for energy imports, most of all liquefied natural gas. Russia quickly became one of Japan’s top energy trading partners, and plans for a gas pipeline, which have been mooted for decades, were reportedly revived last fall. That has carried over to the security front. Last year, Abe pledged Japan’s support for Russia’s counterterrorism concerns while seeking Moscow’s understanding about Japan’s defense and security reforms.

Before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Tokyo and Moscow had agreed to regular “2+2” dialogues between their respective ministers of defense and foreign affairs. The first such meeting took place in November 2013 in Tokyo and marked a significant improvement in bilateral ties. During that meeting, both sides agreed to increase cooperation in a number of strategic areas as an initial step toward elevating the partnership. But the Ukraine crisis put a temporary moratorium on these high-level exchanges.

There is a broader strategic element to Japan-Russia relations, too. Abe’s sustained engagement with Russia is based on the conviction that improved ties with Moscow will help Japan’s economy and guard against China’s growth and assertiveness. Tokyo sees this as even more of an imperative, considering the shifting geostrategic environment in the region brought by closer ties between Moscow and Beijing. Russia, for its part, also has an interest in improving relations with Japan in order to balance its complex relationship with China and continue its own stated goal of a Russian “pivot to Asia.” 

Abe and Putin will continue to be challenged in their attempts to bolster their relationship due to external pressures created by the Ukraine crisis. But there is a new opening for a grand bargain involving the Kurils, especially as Abe suffers in the polls because of his contentious legislation to expand the role of the military, currently in the Japanese Diet. Abe may look for a diplomatic win with Russia to help soften the blow of the security bills domestically and distract critics from his polarizing security policy

Indeed, Abe appears to be pursuing a similar agenda with China, by improving ties with Beijing and looking for a visit there later this fall. The biggest challenge for Japan and Russia in the coming months will be for both sides to retain at least some of the momentum despite Tokyo’s sanctions against Moscow, which aren’t likely to subside anytime soon, unless in concert with its other G-7 partners. Without that larger change, Japan will be forced to maintain a balanced line with Russia going forward, one that is compartmentalized and issue-specific, but could still yield results.

To read the article published by World Politics Review, click here