The relationship between Japan and Russia seems to have been “back to normal” since the start of the Yoshihide Suga administration in September 2020. This “normalcy” means no breakthroughs in the mutual relationship and no progress in peace treaty negotiations, that is, negotiations on the return of the territories claimed by Japan. These objectives have not been a top diplomatic priority, and the people of the two countries now view each other coldly, even though they are important neighbors. The Japan-Russia relationship has been like this for much of the time since World War II. Like it or not, this is the reality.

Lessons From the Abe Era

In office from 2012 to 2020, the Shinzo Abe administration was the longest in Japanese constitutional history, and it was exceptional despite the lack of fruitful results in Japan-Russia relations. Though there had been other prime ministers who had worked diligently to resolve the dispute over the contested islands, Abe’s personal commitment to the issue was unparalleled. During his tenure, the media also showed great interest in the relationship between Japan and Russia, and especially in the possibility of progress in the territorial dispute: any meeting between Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin attracted much publicity, with both the Japanese media and many Japanese people paying close attention to every comment by Putin.  

Abe’s passion for progress in the Japan-Russia relationship and for the signing of the peace treaty was influenced by his father, Shintaro Abe, the former foreign minister of Japan, who had finally collapsed from his illness while striving for a breakthrough in the relationship between Japan and the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Abe himself has told the public that he was fulfilling his father’s dying wish. However, this was not the only reason. Abe and his team had also emphasized that they were pursuing a strategic approach. 

In an interview after his retirement, former prime minister Abe recalled that the basic idea was that “as a strategic decision, Russia should not be driven to the Chinese side.” Nobukatsu Kanehara, who supported Abe’s diplomacy as the second-in-command at the National Security Secretariat, listed the establishment of “a strategic balance on a global scale with the rise of China in mind” as a successful diplomatic effort of Abe’s team. The approach to Russia was believed to be based on the same idea. 

Since the relationship between Japan and China will inevitably remain competitive and confrontational in the long term, the strategic importance of progress in Japan’s relationship with Russia will grow. This stems from the principle that Japan should avoid simultaneous conflicts with China and Russia. The strategic logic of this is rational and easy to understand, but its application has faced the tough reality of politics and diplomacy.

First of all, for Russia, the relationship with China is more important than the relationship with Japan. This means that Russia can’t risk sacrificing its relationship with China to strengthen its relationship with Japan. It doesn’t mean that Japan is not important to Russia, but Russia has more at stake with China, with which it shares a long land border.

Secondly, Japan, Russia, and China are not the only countries to consider when examining Japan-Russia relations. The United States has a major impact on the relationship between Japan and Russia, and due to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, relations between Washington and Moscow have fallen to their worst state since the end of the Cold War.

Japan has stressed to Russia that the intention of the U.S.-Japan Alliance is not to target or threaten Russia, and Japan sincerely means it. In fact, hardly any Japanese think that the U.S.-Japan Alliance targets Russia. However, it is of course impossible for Russia to completely believe these words. As far as Moscow is concerned, the U.S.-Japan Alliance represents just another U.S. alliance like NATO, which Russia confronts on its European flank, making Japan nothing but a U.S. frontline base. As long as Moscow feels this way, and while the relationship between the United States and Russia remains rocky, there is only so much progress that can be made in the relationship between Japan and Russia. If even a part of the disputed territories were returned to Japan, there would be a possibility that the United States would deploy its military to that area, which is a very serious problem for Russia.

The above considerations strongly limit Japan’s room for strategic maneuver. Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the significance of the emergence of Japan-Russia relations in the strategic landscape of Northeast Asia, even in a limited form. Japan’s immediate objective was to escape a situation where both China and Russia jointly criticized Japan for controversial historical issues, disputed territories, and so on, and if China was concerned with the progress of the relationship between Japan and Russia, this could have been a strategic message to China.

For Russia, which wanted to avoid depending too heavily on China and to maintain its autonomy in Asia, having the option of a relationship with Japan was no small thing. This—along with Japan’s economic assistance for the Russian Far East, including the disputed islands—was why the Putin administration put an increased emphasis on its relationship with Japan.  

Challenges for Suga

Although Prime Minister Suga has stated that he will continue former prime minister Abe’s Russia policy, it isn’t clear yet which specific aspects of Abe’s policy will remain in place. Suga himself has said that he will establish “stable relationships” with neighboring countries including Russia and China, but what this means depends on his definition of “stable relationships.” The government does not officially admit that its relationship with Russia is now less of a priority, but it is natural to suspect that Suga’s commitment to pursuing a relationship with Russia is not as strong as Abe’s was.  

At the same time, as mentioned above, the strategic necessity of improving Japan’s relationship with Russia does not change with a new administration as long as China continues to strengthen its influence in the region. Japan still needs to avoid a situation where its relationship with Russia deteriorates and becomes more confrontational. The Suga administration needs to learn a lesson from Abe’s experiences in order to restructure Japan’s Russia strategy. There are three key points here.

The first point relates to Japan’s approach to Russia. While the Abe administration pursued the aforementioned strategy toward Russia, as a tactical matter Abe’s team avoided talking about issues that were problematic for Russia. For example, Japan was the last of the G7 countries to impose sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. Japan also carefully avoided expressing a clear position on the poisonings of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and opposition leader Alexei Navalny. In each case, Tokyo sent the message that it did not want to aggravate Moscow.

However, it is unclear whether Japan received any benefits from Russia in exchange, or what Russia really thought of Japan’s circumspection. Is it better for Japan to avoid all matters that Russia is sensitive about, or to deliberately take principled positions on them? Some might suggest that the latter option would make Russia take Japan more seriously and might fit better with Moscow’s own political style.

In addition, Russia is currently not struggling with anything in its relationship with Japan and is in no rush to resolve the territorial dispute. Furthermore, without active peace treaty negotiations, as long as the Russian Far East still gets investment and financial support from Japan, even in a small amount, Russia has no incentive to change the situation. We must recognize this reality. It is Japan that wants to change the current state of affairs. Therefore, Japan needs to communicate more clearly why change would be in Russia’s interests.

The second point concerns Japan’s relationship with the United States. Tokyo needs Washington to be on its side in improving Japan-Russia relations, concluding a peace treaty, and resolving the territorial dispute. The relationship between the United States and Russia determines the extent to which the relationship between Japan and Russia can be improved. There is an opinion that while relations between Washington and Moscow are poor, Moscow needs Tokyo more, so this is a good opportunity to build the relationship. This might be true in specific situations, but as a whole, it is only an illusion. As long as Japan is a U.S. ally and has the powerful U.S. military stationed there, Russia can’t think about the United States and Japan separately. Nothing Japan says can change that.

Japan’s efforts to improve the relationship between the United States and Russia are self-centered and do not achieve the right balance between ends and means in Japan’s relationship with Russia. The important thing is drawing a complete picture so that the United States can understand that an improved relationship between Japan and Russia, including the resolution of the territorial dispute, is beneficial not only for Japan but also for the U.S.-Japan Alliance and the United States itself. Unless Tokyo involves Washington in its efforts to improve its relationship with Moscow, the United States will remain an impediment in the relationship between Japan and Russia. This is why more discussion between Tokyo and Washington about Japan-Russia relations is necessary.

The third and most important point has to do with Japan’s domestic efforts to build a new consensus. When the Abe administration negotiated with Russia, its objectives and talking points were not made clear to the public, which was left to wonder whether Abe’s team was insisting on the return of all four contested islands, or had changed its position to calling for the return of two islands as the media reported. Very few people in Japan oppose the objective of the return of the disputed territory. However, it has been made clear that the goal remains a long-term one.

What would spark a sharp controversy would be to deemphasize the return of the islands. It is important for the Japanese government to keep insisting on ownership of the territories based on international law, and it is clear that the future governments will continue to do so. The Suga administration has no choice but to continue raising this matter until it is resolved. However, since this is a difficult objective for the short and medium term, the question is where to set the goals and focus of Japan-Russia relations. If Russia can’t return the territories for a long time, it’s natural for people to say that Japan should not put too many resources into its relationship with Russia. The discussion must begin with open talks. Precisely because he does not appear to have as strong a personal commitment to the Japan-Russia relationship as his predecessor Abe, Prime Minister Suga may be able to carry out this important task.

  • Michito Tsuruoka