Prime Minister Suga and the Putin Problem

Former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō pursued a close personal relationship with Russian President to pursue political goals. Now that Abe has resigned without making any progress on the Northern Territories issue, though, how should his replacement, Suga Yoshihide, approach relations with Putin? International relations analyst and 28-year Moscow resident Kitano Yoshinori shares his take.

Russian Constitutional Amendment Increases Kuril Islands Obstacles

Japanese Prime Minister Abe left office with several unmet goals, among them amending Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, resolving the North Korea abduction issue, and securing the return of the Kurils—known to Japan as the Northern Territories, islands occupied by the Soviet Union just before the end of World War II. One of Abe’s strategies on the last front was to pursue a personal friendship with Russian President , but with the end of his administration, it has become clear that he was unable to make any meaningful progress.

On July 1, 2020, Russian voters took part in a referendum on amending the country’s constitution, choosing to grant Putin the power to extend his term all the way to 2036. The accepted amendments also include language banning any calls to cede Russian territory, with a provision excepting “delimitation, demarcation, and re-demarcation of the state borders of the Russian Federation with adjacent states.” This leaves room to interpret the Northern Territories as an exception; however, in general it appears to be a further obstacle to negotiations over them. With things taking such a difficult turn, how exactly should Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, Abe’s successor, approach Russia and its ostensible leader-for-life?

Two Principles of Japan-Russia Relations

It is common to hear people in Japan say they are unable to understand what Putin is thinking. In truth, though, his thought processes are usually quite clear. There are two principles needed to understand Japan-Russia relations. First, discussing the Northern Territories issue will harm these relations. Second, discussing profit will improve them.

When it comes to Japan, there are two things on Putin’s mind: “I want money,” and “I don’t want to give the islands back.” It may be difficult to just take my word for this, so I have prepared some proof.

Abe Shinzō began his second stint as prime minister in December 2012. He threw himself into improving relations with Russia the very next year, hoping to resolve the territorial dispute during his time in office. However, at the same time, he avoided any direct demands for their return, and focused on improving business cooperation between the two nations.

That situation came to a turning point in March 2014, though, when Russia annexed Crimea. Japan joined the United States and the European Union in a coalition opposing Russia’s actions. Japan’s government and industry leaders stopped discussing economic activities (in short, profit), and from that point onward, all Japanese officials could talk about was the return of the four islands. Since Russia’s stance is that it wants money, but doesn’t want to return these lands, Japan-Russia relations worsened.

The next turning point came in May 2016, when Abe and Putin met in Sochi, Russia. During the meeting, Abe proposed an eight-point cooperation plan to expand bilateral economic relations. In other words, the Japanese government stopped talking about the territorial dispute, and once more started talking about profit. A satisfied Putin came to visit Japan in December of that same year, and Japan-Russia relations once more took a positive turn.

The last reversal of the Abe administration came in November 2018. At a meeting with Putin in Singapore, Abe proposed an acceleration of official peace treaty negotiations, based on the 1956 Joint Declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union. For Japan, that represented a major compromise. By referring to the Joint Declaration, Japanese officials were effectively giving up on the previous fundamental policy of demanding return of all four of the islands in question, settling for just two of them.

However, Putin did not seem overly impressed with Abe’s bold move. As I have said before, are two things on Putin’s mind: his desire for economic benefit and his refusal to give up the islands. The same principles hold for two islands as for all four. Once more, bilateral relations began to suffer.

Putin apparently believes that if Russia returns the islands to Japan, it will open the way for a US military presence there, on the cusp of Russia’s far eastern territory. Evidence of this concern is that in March 2019, he said that no formal peace treaty would be possible unless Japan ended its mutual defense agreement with the United States. From that point on, Japan-Russia relations have continued to degrade.

This outline of Japan-Russia ties during the Abe administration should offer ample evidence of the two principles guiding relations between these two nations.

Prime Minister Suga’s Only Hope

It should be clear now that Russia has no intention of returning the islands.

Given this, how should Japan approach its relations with its continental neighbor? And should it even try? There are probably some reading this and thinking, “If negotiation is so impossible, why even bother with Russia?”

Indeed, I myself might feel the same—in an ordinary time of peace, at least. However, as I think most are aware, this is not normal peacetime. In November 2012, China approached Russia and South Korea to form a united front to oppose Japan. At the same time, China has denied Japan’s sovereignty over not only the Senkaku Islands, but Okinawa as well. Japan is under a clear threat from Chinese hegemony.

In response to this development, the Abe administration moved swiftly to improve relations with the United States, Russia, and South Korea. In April 2015 Abe gave his “alliance of hope” speech to the US Congress, shoring up relations with the United States. In December 2015, Japan-Korea relations also improved, if only temporarily, after an agreement on the “comfort women” issue. Of course, Abe worked on improving Russian relations as has already been described.

When Putin visited Japan, strategically minded China expressed unhappiness about the warming ties between Moscow and Tokyo. An editorial run by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency stated that Prime Minister Abe might be embracing Russia to bolster the countries’ encirclement of China, but described the China-Russia relationship as too strong to be shaken. No one on the Japanese government side made any indication that the summit had any connection to opposing China. Beijing, though, is always sensitive to strategic dangers, and so is acting out of fear of closer ties between Japan and Russia.

The Importance of Cooperation

The appropriate stance for Japan to take now is to strengthen ties to Russia to oppose China, even though Putin has no intention of returning the Northern Territories. How can Japan do that, though?

For the answer, we look to the second principle described above: A focus on profit will improve Japan-Russia relations. Prime Minister Suga should continue to make progress on the cooperation plan that Prime Minister proposed to Russia in 2016, even if only slowly.

There are probably still those who would find it distasteful to join hands with Russia, but examining the historical situation should help convince them. Considering the work of Edward Luttwak, one of the world’s foremost strategic thinkers, might help. In his book The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy, he says that a relationship with Russia is of the utmost importance to Japan’s survival. Naturally, Japan’s own resolve and its support from the United States are the most important resources it has, but adding to those close ties to Russia is an essential point, and could in fact be a deciding factor.

On an emotional basis, I can understand the distaste for the power that holds the Northern Territories. However, in order to keep China from claiming the Senkakus and even Okinawa, Japan must join hands with Russia.

(Banner photo: Russian President and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō at a Japanese-Russian Summit meeting in December 2016 in Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture. © Kyōdō.)

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