The Japan-US-Russia Triangle in 2016


The Washington-Tokyo-Moscow triangle has intermittently drawn attention since the 1950s for its potential to shift Japan’s foreign policy and alter the course of great power balancing. Until the late 1970s, Tokyo’s soft stance—a territorial deal in return for an autonomous foreign policy or an energy program boosting the Russian economy—was of prime concern, although it never materialized. From the late 1970s to mid-1990s, a hard stance was at times a concern, giving way until 2012 to a sense that little change was likely. While that nonchalance lingers today, based on the assumption of little progress in Russo-Japanese relations, some in Washington again see the possibility of a soft stance having an impact, as they have followed Abe’s pursuit of Putin from 2013 to 2016.

The odds continue to be against a breakthrough, not due to Japan’s intransigence on “four islands in a batch,” as was earlier the case, nor to US pressure to keep the territorial issue alive as a wedge between Tokyo and Moscow, as some assume, but due to geopolitical, geo-economic, and also national identity factors in Russia less favorable to a deal since Abe and Putin in April 2013 set their sights on one. The US role adds to the geopolitical case against a deal, but national identities in both Japan and Russia, seemingly not very conducive to an agreement, could be reinterpreted in ways that prove to be supportive.

Over the three years since Abe and Putin agreed to press for a breakthrough, predictions of the prospects have touched many themes: leadership, the territorial dispute, military relations, Ukraine, geopolitics, history, civilization, geo-economics, and the Russian Far East. I take up these issues through a rough chronology of how prospects have evolved, while incorporating the United States into a triangular framework for each of the periods.

2013: Second Quarter—Counting on Leadership

The initial optimism that something different was occurring in bilateral relations put the emphasis on the leadership of Putin, who had sparked hope with his call for a “hikiwake” solution to the bilateral dispute, and of Abe, who went to Moscow in April 2013 leading a large business delegation, showing eagerness to fulfill his family’s destiny to resolve this dispute. Japan appeared to have precedence for Putin in 2012-2013, as a large-scale energy consumer and a target for multipolarity in Russia’s “turn to the East.” These two popular leaders already in 2006-2007 had explored ways to reach a breakthrough, raising hopes on both sides of a compromise settlement dividing the four islands, a big economic deal in support of Putin’s priority for the Russian Far East and Japan’s expansion of gas imports to replace closed nuclear power plants, and bragging rights that a thorn in the side of each state’s identity in turning to or returning to Asia would be removed to the leader’s credit. More than anything, leadership determination and strength boosted early expectations.

US-Japan relations were not rattled by Abe’s unbridled wooing of Putin. In the 1990s, a Russo-Japanese breakthrough had been encouraged; in the Obama “reset” to Russia, the modernization of Russia along with development of the Russian Far East was welcomed, and, even as Putin returned to the top post in Russia more harshly critical of the West, it was not expected that any deal he reached with Abe would be at the expense of US aims.

2013: Third Quarter-Reviving a Framework for the Territorial Dispute

In addition to the missing variable of strong, stable leadership in Japan, skeptics had long cited its obsessive national identity as unable to accept a compromise once labeled “2 + alpha.” Yet, despite its hasty retreat on this framework for negotiations after the 2001 Irkutsk summit, Japan had been inching toward it—especially during the first stint of Abe as prime minister, when Foreign Minister Aso Taro had floated the idea of a 50-50 split in territory. After decades of diplomacy and mutual attentiveness over evolving thinking about the “Northern Territories” or “Southern Kuriles,” a framework is, arguably, in place—although neither side acknowledges it or has been willing to make the first, open move—to reach a compromise. Japanese media cast the diplomacy as only directed at the return of all four islands, while Russian media ignore Putin’s call for a “hikiwake” split (2 versus 2 islands, 50-50 split of territory?). Russians insist, after Putin in 2001 had been left out on a limb after accepting the 1956 agreement calling for the return of two islands, that the ball is in the Japanese court. Yet, hope rests on shared belief in a framework at work.

Misinformation led Russians, more pessimistically, to assume that Japan is inflexible in demanding four islands and Japanese, more optimistically, to assume that Putin has the will to deliver four islands. No far-reaching analysis of the reality of the negotiations was widely available, exacerbating the delay on talks. Few in Washington paid much heed to the diplomacy, although some notice was given to the views of boosters in Japan and to the joint Togo-Panov appeal published in both countries for how talks should proceed.1

 2013: Fourth Quarter—Taking Hope from Military Relations

In April, Abe and Putin had agreed to 2 + 2 talks (foreign and defense ministers), which took place in early November, adding security to the mix. Positive commentary on the results—dealing with terrorism and piracy through joint exercises, defense exchanges, and new consultations—obscured serious differences, such as Defense Minister Shoigu’s alarm about the missile defense system being pursued by Japan and the United States, which he sees as against Russia, or Japan’s awareness that Russia’s military build-up in the Far East is putting added pressure on it and might mean that Russia takes the strategic significance of the islands more seriously. Overlooking concerns, media concentrated on the exceptional nature of 2 + 2 talks between states whose ties had been troubled and the momentum they impart to the next leaders’ dialogue planned for the Sochi Olympics.

Signs of US concern were finally appearing, at a time when relations with Putin were newly strained, Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December was damaging US-Japan ties, and Obama and allied leaders were refusing to join Abe at the opening ceremonies. Yet, Japanese interpreted this boycott as a split over human rights, not a serious concern.

2014: First Quarter—Dealing with Sanctions over Ukraine

Reporting on the summit in Sochi was very positive on the warmth of Putin’s hospitality (in comparison to the reception given to Xi Jinping) and the groundwork being laid for resolving the territorial question despite no indication of concrete progress.2 Yomiuri Shimbun, which has championed Abe’s pursuit of Putin, went so far as to use the term “honeymoon relations” to refer to the increasing “trust” between them, while treating the Western human rights logic with scant concern.3 If Japan had failed to think strategically about Russia after the Irkutsk summit, it was now doing so, unlike the US approach, but belying such logic, the main stress was put on the return of territory, not on geopolitics.

As tensions mounted over Ukraine, Japan was caught between the United States and Russia, striving to avoid an impact on its quest for the Northern Territories. Due to his personal ties to Putin, Abe avoided direct criticism of Russia, one paper noted,4 a week later posting a piece by Sato Masaru that there is no return to the Cold War; rather this is more of an imperialist confrontation.5 On March 12, Abe sent his national security advisor Yachi Shotaro to Moscow after introducing him to Putin on February 8, hoping to avoid the worst-case scenario after the annexation of Crimea. Others, however, were concerned that US lack of resolve in preventing the annexation would mean that a Chinese seizure of the Senkaku Islands would be met with similar weakness before Obama reassured Japan that April. Sustaining momentum with Putin was hardly possible in this polarized atmosphere, as Japanese recognized an overlap in what Putin was doing and what they feared China would do at their expense. The US factor was now greatly heightened.

2014: Second Quarter—Facing New Geopolitical Tensions

Although he was obliged for the sake of G7 cohesion to be cautious, Abe did not refrain from approaching Russia from the point of view of advancing the territorial discussions, securing Russian energy, and pursuing a strategy to counter China. Given US resistance, he had no choice but to make the case that his overtures were justified by geopolitics, countering the US argument with one of his own. After suspending some talks with Moscow on March 18, Japan went further on April 29 by denying visas to 23 individuals. Such begrudging, rather token, sanctions were, it appears, explained to the Russians as minimal and under US pressure—not a reason for interrupting the Abe-Putin courtship. Meanwhile, media were preoccupied with whether Putin would visit in the fall, as Abe had invited him to do at Sochi. The story played out as a quintessential drama in Japanese foreign policy. On the one hand, Japan’s leadership was eager for the visit to go forward, playing up its far-reaching consequences for national interests and national identity. On the other, despite the odds against the visit, which kept growing from the annexation of Crimea to the Russian armed intervention in East Ukraine and shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, officials kept giving the impression that they were ready to go forward if it were not for US pressure, i.e., the geopolitical split between Abe and Obama.

With little likelihood that Putin would do more than conditionally agree to return two islands—in greater doubt due to the sovereignty consciousness aroused over Crimea—, why was Abe planning on Putin coming in the fall? In Washington, doubts intensified that Russia’s motives had shifted to splitting the G7 as its willingness to go beyond two islands (no alpha?) or even to compromise at all was now suspect. Japan presumably had to make an economic deal sought by Moscow but not high on Japan’s own priorities. It would have to sign a peace treaty, gut the G7 sanctions, and go without confirmation of geopolitical success in limiting Sino-Russian ties. Abe could claim that he had resolved a problem that had eluded his predecessors, and the tangible benefit of islands would serve as hard evidence. Yet, the damage to Japan-US relations and lack of leverage over China would mean that the return of islands would be scant reward for the price Abe had paid

2014: Third Quarter—Facing a Geopolitical Breakdown

The shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine intensified pressure on Abe to impose more serious sanctions. Yielding to calls for G7 unity, Japan on August 5 froze the assets of 40 Russians and companies in Crimea, going further in September to ban the issuance of securities to various Russian banks and to add restrictions on arms exports. While some called these sanctions a formality—far different from US and EU sanctions—, Russia ran out of patience, said Alexandr Lenin,6 who said it had to retaliate, although it had refrained from an “eye for an eye,” recognizing the US pressure on Japan and that the unfriendly steps Japan had taken since March (as detailed in a note handed to the Japanese ambassador by Igor Morgulov) were softer than those of other G7 states. The article concluded that “hikiwake” is dead, meaning there will be no territorial deal, but Russia will give Japan a chance to boost economic cooperation as it awaits Japan’s decision on Putin’s visit. Trying to satisfy both sides was failing, but Abe was undeterred.

Japan-US relations were more troubled as Russia’s threat to Ukraine intensified, leading to more US insistence on a firm, united response. Yomiuri Shimbun emphasized the weak nature of Japan’s sanctions and the importance it attaches to dialogue with Russia, adding that only superficially was Japan’s response parallel to those of the European Union and United States. Reluctant to abandon its plan for Putin to visit in the fall, Japan imposed new financial sanctions when there was no other option, it added, quoting a high Japanese official that the possibility is low that these sanctions would have any effect on the Russian economy, e.g., there was no intention to impact Russian oil and gas firms. The focus is on blaming the United States, while saying little about why Russia might deserve to be sanctioned or how a soft response may abet aggression.7 Moscow is viewed through a narrow bilateral prism, backed by logic that the real danger is China and the priority must be to prevent a Sino-Russian alliance—logic doubted on the far right and left, but endorsed by Abe.

Waiting for Putin became an obsession—parallel to earlier ones focused on Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Articles asked how Russia was responding to new sanctions, what could Japan do to reassure it, and how could US pressure be handled without causing undue damage to the alliance. The larger strategic context was usually lost. Reporting what former prime Minister Mori had just said in his meeting with Putin, Yomiuri noted Abe’s wish to do the least possible damage to Japan-Russia relations.8 The gap between US and Japanese geopolitical reasoning was at a peak not seen in post-Cold War decades.

2014: Fourth Quarter—Using Geopolitics to Overcome Geopolitics

On October 18, Sankei Shimbun gave a detailed portrait of how the “Vladimir-Shinzo” relationship had blossomed again after an eight-month interruption since they had last met. First, in September, Mori had handed Putin Abe’s personal letter. Then birthday diplomacy for Abe on September 21 and Putin on October 7 led to telephone calls of congratulations as well as fishing gear as a present to Putin. On October 4, Abe’s wife attended a judo event between the two countries. On October 17 on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit, the leaders finally met in person. The article reported, negotiations over the Northern Territories are back on track despite Russia making its displeasure known.9

Putin could not visit, as planned, in 2014, and Abe, facing the challenges of the seventieth anniversary of the end of WWII and obsessed with the priority for legislation to allow collective self-defense, could do little more than communicate to Putin his eagerness to keep their diplomacy moving forward. Abe’s efforts were viewed with suspicion in the West amid talk that Putin’s motive is to split the G7. Indeed, some were equating China’s use of force in the South China Sea with Russia’s in Ukraine, wondering why Japan is leading in one case but is asking for understanding for its apparent dissent in the other, even as it proclaims its support for the principle against the forceful change of borders.

Obama strongly supported Japan in its island dispute with China but expected, in turn, backing for US policy against Russia’s use of force to change territorial boundaries. If Russia is unrelenting on Ukraine and a big threat to international society, Japan could be falling into a trap, exaggerating its geopolitical clout in changing the course of Russia’s relations with China. Putin would try to split the G-7 sanctions network and break free of Russia’s isolation in international society. In contrast, some in Japan saw US thinking too mired in the Cold War, even anticipating a role for Japan as a go-between, explaining the position of the West to Russia while recognizing that, from the point of view of Russian history, Ukraine and Crimea are not the same. The dialogue with Russia, they insisted, must go forward; others should not forbid it. The geopolitical challenge is to prevent a Sino-Russian axis.10 Russia sees Japan as not intruding into its sphere of influence, unlike Europe and the United States and even China, it was reasoned, and seeks cooperation in the Arctic Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk in security and energy. Japan’s existence for Russia is special; Japan’s analysis of geopolitics is distinctive too, given Asian realities.

2015: First Quarter—Taking a Hiatus in a Quadrangular Context

With Abe anticipating a visit to Washington in the spring and the Ukraine situation in limbo, relations with Moscow were not a priority. Putin too was focused elsewhere, as he responded to sanctions and falling commodity prices with not only far-reaching economic plans with China but also new types of cooperation in military technology. Yet, after Abe had stemmed the deterioration in relations and agreed with Putin in Beijing in November that despite sanctions they could improve relations, there was little concern that the hiatus ahead would prove problematic, e.g, Nihon Keizai Shimbun appealed for wise diplomacy to prevent closer Sino-Russian ties, but did not explain why Russia would find so much value in Japan that it would change the main thrust of its policy.11 On January 27, Asahi Shimbun carried Ono Masami’s op-ed on how Russia is inviting international isolation, citing former Prime Minister Primakov’s appeal to Putin for multipolarity with Japan as one pole.12 Ono posits a struggle in the Russian government between hawks and doves and suggests that if the situation in Ukraine improves and sanctions are relaxed, Putin could visit Japan and lessen the dependence on China. Ono kept alive a glimmer of hope as others saw Russia’s international isolation as reason that it now needed Japan more.

When Sankei Shimbun reported on March 30 that Abe would not be accepting Putin’s invitation to attend the seventieth anniversary ceremonies on May 9 in Moscow, it noted
that leaders in the West are also not attending, unlike the sixtieth anniversary when Koizumi joined Bush and Hu Jintao, citing illegal occupation of the Northern Territories as a concern that stands in the way of Abe’s attendance.13 In contrast, those closer to Abe, who held out hope for a deal on the islands, worried that Abe’s absence could scuttle prospects for Putin to go to Japan this year. Obama-Abe differences over Russia were overshadowed by their successful summit in April, but their division was deepening.

2015: Second Quarter—Finding Historical Revisionism a Growing Barrier

Foreign Minister Kishida in Belgium on January 20 linked events in Ukraine to Russia’s use of force to alter the situation in the Northern Territories in 1945. Russia’s foreign ministry responded that Japan is distorting the causes and consequences of the war, but Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga reiterated the position that the loss of the islands occurred by force only after Japan had accepted the Potsdam Declaration. As commemorations of the war’s end threatened to exacerbate differences over history, this exchange added fuel to the fire. The way the two states are interpreting WWII is of far-reaching significance—Russia couching its case in victor’s rights after incredible sacrifices, and Japan rejecting some verdicts from its defeat as standing in the way of becoming a “normal country.” Abe’s pursuit of Putin cast a shadow on the G7 summit on June 4-5, where he sought understanding of his desire to get back the islands.14 In May, Japan had hosted Sergei Naryshkin, chairman of the State Duma and a confidante of Putin, whose entry into the European Union and United States was barred by the sanctions. Failing to attend the May 9 Moscow parade, Abe rushed to revive prospects of Putin’s visit.

The Russian view of history complicated Abe’s task. Vladimir Petrovskii in July argued that in 1951 there was no agreement in Asia (a source of discord greater than the lone case in Europe of a divided Germany), which sowed the seeds that are now sprouting as an echo of WWII. Praising Soviet diplomacy for actively striving—with no ideological limitations—to overcome this impasse, treating Japan’s rising military activity from the time of the Korean War as a negative force, and blaming US machinations for problems that cannot be resolved without a proper historical evaluation, he called for a multilateral security architecture (missing since 1951’s wrong direction) as the way forward, and he suggested that Abe’s 2013 proactive pursuit of Russia raised hopes for such a deal. Yet, he also warned that falsification of WWII and glorification of militarism threaten this outcome. Only by Japan breaking away from the United States could it avoid a joint Sino-Russian initiative in 2015 to link their shared historical judgment of 1945 and the Cold War era to a decision to pressure the US alliance system—Japan included.15

After Putin’s May 9 parade, Nagoshi Kenro put relations in the context of Russian thinking about history,16 finding little basis for optimism. He highlights the rise of nationalism, in which reference to Japan’s past militarism is invoked in harmony with China, in contrast to the 2005 Putin statement. He stresses the weight given in Russia to Yalta and the outcome of WWII as the foundation of the world order, which is being endangered by what Russia sees as US policy backed by Japan. He also notes the rehabilitation of Stalin—public support for him has risen from 27 percent to 45 percent in seven years and criticism has fallen from 43 to 20 percent just from 2010. Negative assessments of Stalin make it easier for Russian leaders to disown his glorification of taking four islands from Japan if not his rationale for breaking the treaty of neutrality and entering the war versus Japan. Nagoshi is careful to note that Abe waited until nearly the last moment—having received the invitation in the fall of 2014, only at the end of April just before traveling to the United States did he turn down the invitation, explaining that this did not signify a change in his Russia policy. The article warns of Duma talk of making September 3 the victory day over Japan in line with China’s celebration.

On May 20-21, a high-level exchange signaled the depths to which relations had fallen. Lavrov accused Japan of being the only country that does not accept the results of WWII due to its stance on the Northern Territories. Suga responded that his remarks are baseless. Russia had also suspended visits by Japanese to their ancestral areas of the islands in a visa-free travel program. Yet, Japanese were keen to limit the damage, e.g., Hyodo Shinji, under the title “Same Bed, Different Dreams,” saw the inclusion in the Putin-Xi joint declaration of a reference to “Japanese militarism” as little more than Russia showing concern after the Ukrainian crisis had begun for China’s thinking. Haruna Mikio derided the “honeymoon” in Sino-Russian relations as a facade, given the power difference between them, their tense negotiations, and China’s reluctance to invest.17 Russia’s shift on history was seen as of little matter.

US optimism that the spat over WWII would clarify that history unites the two allies and divides them from Moscow was short-lived. Plans for Putin to visit were going forward despite. Abe’s determination to pursue an independent foreign policy at the same time as he was strengthening the alliance with the United States gained new life even as sanctions against Russia were being renewed and expanded.

2015: Third Quarter—Overcoming a Civilizational Divide

Differences over history widened into civilizational differences. On August 23, Lavrov linked the struggle against Nazism and Japanese militarism, praising the Soviet Union as the only state that came to China’s aid after Japan’s 1931 and 1937 aggression and as the liberator of Northeast China as well as Korea after Japan had refused to capitulate. Joint opposition to falsifications of the war, which defame both nations and now rattle the foundation of the contemporary world order (as if views of history are manifest in military threats to the fruits of victory—by the United States and Japan) is showcased.18

The civilizational argument in Russia was premised on the existence of an aggressive US strategy (similar to Cold War provocations launched against the Soviet Union), which is ideologically driven by a drive to contain and weaken Russia and China, leaving them with no option but to resist for their survival. The challenge is military—militarization of Japan—, economic—exclusive integration projects at odds with a single, integrated global economy—, and civilizational—aiming to impose that of the West, although an opening existed for Japan, in light of its less onerous sanctions, to go ahead with the invitation for Putin to visit in 2015 and show its own civilizational outlook.19

Hakamada Shigeki on July 2 questioned whether an invitation to Putin to visit is appropriate.20 He noted that just after the G7 summit, Defense Minister Shoigu had ordered Russian forces to double their military equipment on Etorofu and Kunashiri, warning about Japan’s increased military budget and its demands for the return of the islands. Hakamada quoted Nezavisimaya Gazeta of June 10 as saying that Russia had no hope for talks with Japan, for the first time reporting that the military build-up is directed against Japan. Yet, on June 19, Putin had asserted that all issues with Japan could be resolved, and Russia has high hopes. Abe spoke with him by phone on June 24, and it was reported that Putin would visit this year. Hakamada warned that Japan would be criticized by the other G7 countries and questioned how realistic Japan’s goals are: viewing the territorial talks as just a “performance,” (Russia’s real intention is to drag out the talks and get Japan to make the first compromises). On July 24, Sankei noted that Medvedev would make his third trip since 2010 to the islands, insists on their significance for national defense, and is buttressed by a new spending plan for development of the Kurile Islands in 2016-2025—all in the midst of plans for Putin’s visit to Japan.21

Japanese papers discussed the schedule of National Security Council (NSC) head Yachi Shotaro going to Russia in July to meet with Nikolai Patrushev, Kishida going there later, the two leaders meeting in a third country (perhaps at the United Nations) in the fall, and Putin visiting afterwards. Yomiuri suggested that given bad relations with the European Union and United States, Putin would be reluctant to worsen ties with Japan, with the headline “Progress in Japan-Russian Relations Expected.”22 It sees Abe’s foreign policy as chasing “two rabbits” in the United States and Russia, adding that many leaders in the European Union agree with Abe that it is necessary to keep dialogue with Russia to prevent it from joining with China, jointly strengthening anti-Japan activity, and destabilizing Asia. At the Abe-Obama summit, it says that Abe forcefully made the case that dialogue with Putin will continue and surprised not a few American officials, who called for toughening sanctions. 1) Abe has a strong desire to resolve the territorial question; 2) the worldview of his advisors is realist based on balance of power; and 3) without damaging the US alliance, Abe is determined to make Japan an independent player in international society, the Yomiuri piece said.

2015: Fourth Quarter—Getting a Boost from Geo-economics

In a speech at the September Eastern Economic Forum, Putin identified the strategic goal of forging an energy bridge, which would connect it with the Asia-Pacific region,23 and listed potential spheres to develop economic relations with Japan—infrastructural links, diversification of trade relations of both countries, and enriched research and development cooperation. In 2012 at the Vladivostok Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) summit, Putin had already declared that Russia over 5-10 years would make the Asia-Pacific region its main economic partner. Given its vast Asian territory, the extraordinary opportunities in East Asia, and now the Western sanctions, this shift is even more alluring, as is the prospect of Japan having a large role. After rising to USD 30 billion, Russo-Japanese trade was falling below USD 20 billion in 2015, but, despite low commodity prices, Japanese officials were showing eagerness to play the “economic card” as a way to build momentum with Putin. This was not because the Russian market appeared safer—volatility, the weak rule of law, monopolies, and a lack of transparency all raised concern—, but, in light of Russia’s strained economy, the prospect of using economic ties as a wedge for a breakthrough now was more promising.

Helping Russia to finance a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Vladivostok, which it has been forced to reconsider due to a shortage of fund and to reduce overdependence on China, from which investments are slow to materializing, Japan could get Russia’s attention. Russians will expect massive economic cooperation and investment from Japan—Japanese talk about USD 5 billion or so, Russians USD 20 billion or more.24 A complication is the need for Japanese companies to agree. Another is the problem of timing; Japanese hold back on an energy deal to keep leverage on the territorial issue; Russians regard a gas deal as a precondition to discuss a territorial accommodation. Given sanctions, US opposition can be expected.

2016: First Quarter—Focusing on the Russian Far East

2016 is an ideal time to pursue the return of four islands from Russia, a Chuo Koron article suggests. It looks back to the summer of 2014, when relations stumbled, argues that former prime minister Mori broke the ice that September when he explained to Putin that since Japan can only depend on the United States against the nuclear threat from North Korea; it had to join in the sanctions. Vladimir sending Shinzo a Christmas card, Abe reciprocating with a letter on January 12, and Putin looking for increased recognition amid his isolation when Abe visits him in early May are reasons to think success is within reach. Putin is isolated, Russia-EU-US cooperation on ISIS offers a promising platform, and a near crisis economy raises the value of the investment card Japanese firms wield. Since the abductees issue failed, Russia is all that is left for Abe’s diplomatic mission.25 

Yomiuri articles paint a rosy picture for Japan-Russia relations in 2016. On February 7, it stressed energy security, pointing to Russia as the key to reducing dependency on oil from the Middle East, where instability is growing. Citing the November 6 visit of Igor Sechin to a bilateral energy conference in Tokyo and the growing interest in Japanese investment, given that capital markets in the United States and European Union are closed due to economic sanctions, it finds Russia eager to go forward with Japan on long-term projects. Instead of seeing an economic deal as a favor to Russia, the article treats an LNG plant in Vladivostok and other plans as a “win-win” arrangement.26 Its article, “‘Development of the Far East’ Is the Key to Negotiations,” stressed that Russia’s isolation makes this a good time to boost economic ties, for which the return of the Northern Territories would be necessary,27 and another article noted Russia’s slowdown in the development of the Russian Far East—”the most important policy of the Putin administration”—due to financial difficulties(the budget for the first six-year phase of the 2014-2025 plan has been cut by 20 percent). Cutbacks affect the Northern Territories too, readers are informed.28

The diplomats Harada Chikahito and Igor Morgulov met in Tokyo on February 15 and agreed that Lavrov would visit Japan in mid-April in preparation for Abe’s visit to Russia and Putin’s later visit to Japan. Coverage noted that the territorial issue is the main topic, but that economic cooperation and the Ukraine question will also be on the agenda.29 Not noted in such reports is US concern that the sanctions regime will, thus, be imperiled.


As Abe prepares to meet with Putin again in Sochi, a breakthrough seems possible only if Putin and Abe prioritize this and proceed in stages. The geopolitical case is problematic. Abe’s unprecedented support for the Japan-US alliance gives him some room to operate, but troubled US-Russian and EU-Russian relations are not conducive to a breakthrough. Strengthening the Sino-Russian relationship could give Putin some leeway, but he would have to be no less careful than Abe, given China’s potential to react. Assuming that Putin is eager to strengthen geopolitical ties because he too is nervous about China’s rise (and a GDP now falling below one-fourth of China’s), a Yomiuri editorial is concerned that the idea of “hikiwake” is now being ignored in Russia with Lavrov in late January asserting that a peace treaty and resolution of the territorial issue do not have the same meaning. Yet, it is upbeat about a breakthrough. If two days earlier Yomiuri had made an economic case for cooperation, this time it focused on geopolitics, adding there must be a territorial deal too.30 Reacting to the same Lavrov language, Sankei argued against talks if Russia denies the territorial issue and faults Japan’s foreign ministry for not clearly pointing to the error in Lavrov’s statement and recalling Japan’s version of what happened in 1945 in contradiction to what he said about the islands going to Russia as a result of the war.31 It made clear that Japan must secure the return of four islands, casting doubt on whether Abe should meet with Putin in Russia. The far right disagrees with Abe on this policy.

Along with Japanese artificial optimism and Russian unchallenged pessimism, we should note US entrenched skepticism that a breakthrough is possible. In Washington, few see Putin relinquishing territory, changing his China policy as a result of talks with Japan, or presenting substantial economic and national identity benefits to Japan. After the Crimea annexation, doubts intensified about territorial concessions to Japan. Abe’s motives were not easily understood, beyond wishful thinking about territory, but Putin’s were viewed as little more than driving a wedge between allies, and, after sanctions were imposed, breaking the unity of the G7. With the Obama-Putin relationship badly strained, only a few saw value in Abe continuing to have a good working relationship with Putin, but more had concern that Japanese would blame Obama for a breakdown, As long as Japan acts in concert in regard to sanctions, US unease is unlikely to put a strain on relations.

Japanese are overly concerned about US pressure against a breakthrough, ignoring US support for an agreement in the 1990s and the focus on enforcement of sanctions at present. Differences over a “2 + alpha” solution to the territorial dispute pose a challenge, which can be bridged. Russian swagger to insist on “2 – alpha” and national identity victory, demanding that their interpretation of WW2 be ratified, is a stumbling block. A breakthrough inevitably would be explained differently in the two countries, each overstating its impact to garner domestic support. It would not be transformative for the regional security architecture of Asia or the development of the Russian Far East, but it would reinforce images of Abe and Putin as bold leaders eager to raise the stature of their countries as autonomous actors even as they cooperate closely with their respective close partners, whose divide keeps hardening. Abe seems eager. Is Putin equally eager?

1. I have translated this into English in Prospects for Japan-Russia Relations and Implications for the U.S.-Japan Alliance, ed. Gilbert Rozman (Washington DC: Sasakawa USA, 2016).

2. Sankei Shimbun, February 9, 2014.

3. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 9, 2014.

4. Nihon Keizai Shimbun, March 4, 2014.

5. Nihon Keizai Shimbun, March 14, 2014.

6. Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 26, 2014.

7. Yomiuri Shimbun, September 25, 2014.

8. Yomiuri Shimbun, September 11, 2014.

9. Sankei Shimbun, October 8, 2016.

10. Togo Kazuhiko, “Civilizational Divides and Regional Confrontations – 3,” The Asan Forum 2, no. 6 (November/December 2014).

11. Nihon Keizai Shimbun, December 14, 2014.

12. Asahi Shimbun, January 27, 2015.

13. Sankei Shimbun, March 30, 2015.

14. Yomiuri Shimbun, June 7, 2015.

15. Vladimir Petrovskii, “Dilemmy Aziatsko-Tikhookeanskoi integratsii v geoekonomicheskom i geopoliticheskom kontekste,” Mezhdunarodnaya Zhizn’, August 2015.

16. Nagoshi Kenro, “Taidoku sensho o hitorijime suru Roshia,” Kaigai Jijo (July/August 2015): 88-101.

17. Yomiuri Shimbun, May 25, 2015.

18. Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 23, 2015.

19. Sankei Shimbun, June 25, 2015.

20. Sankei Shimbun, July 2, 2015.

21. Sankei Shimbun, July 24, 2015.

22. Yomiuri Shimbun, June 24, June 28, July 5, 2015.

23. Russia Direct, September 4, 2015.

24. These figures come from meetings in late 2015 and early 2016 with persons from each side.

25. Chuo Koron, March 2016, 62-63.

26. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 7, 2015, 4.

27. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 23, 2015, 4.

28. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 27, 2016.

29. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 16, 2016, 4.

30. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 9, 2016, 3.

31. Sankei Shimbun, January 31, 2016, 2.

Now Reading The Japan-US-Russia Triangle in 2016