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Late last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Japan, stopping first in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s home in Yamaguchi Prefecture and then moving up to Tokyo. It was a visit that had been long in the planning, but delayed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But Putin did not bring much with him, arguing instead that it was the United States that had derailed the Abe-Putin diplomatic momentum.
Much has been made of the personal chemistry between Vladimir and Shinzo, but this meeting suggested that their fifteen previous meetings had been less about personality and more about a shrewd calculus of keeping others in Asia off kilter. Would they transform a relationship long stunted by a territorial dispute? Would they distance themselves from others who might want to limit their strategic options—Washington for Abe, Beijing for Putin? Would they be able to put an end to their extended “postwar” diplomatic purgatory for lack of a peace treaty?
Moscow and Tokyo muddled through the Cold War without a peace treaty. There may be little real incentive for change. Energy and other economic cooperation has proceeded without one. Russians travel to Japan and Japanese to Russia freely and without rancor. The islands—known as the Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan—appear to have few proponents in either capitol, and more than half a century later, seem far less pressing.
This is not the same Asia, however, and the geopolitical currents are running faster. China is on the rise and willing to assert itself, and the United States, with an unpredictable new president-elect, could be wiling to upend some of the region’s longstanding foundations, including perhaps its alliances. As Putin said in the joint press conference with Abe, “Japan lived without close cooperation with Russia for seventy years, and we lived without it. Can we live without it in the future? Yes, we can. Will it be the right decision? No."
Yet Putin did not bring to the table what Abe needed. There was no new thinking on the islands, and no readiness it seemed to be creative about how to find compromise. Sovereignty still matters, and island disputes in today’s Asia carry just as much nationalist emotions as they did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The formula on the table remains one that former Soviet and Japanese leaders initially agreed in 1956. Two islands closest to Japan, Habomai and Shikotan, could be returned to Japan, under the conditions they would not be used for military purposes. The larger two islands to the northern, Etorofu and Kunashiri, populated by Russians and others, and the site of Russian infantry units, would not. Japan at one point may have been ready to settle for the two islands formula. Russia, like the Soviet Union, offers no more.
Today, this same formula for solving Japan’s island dispute with Russia is not Washington’s primary concern, as it was in the 1950s. Rather it is Russian behavior elsewhere that concerns the United States. The annexation of Crimea and military involvement in Ukraine, as well as the growing pressures on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s newest members, continue to focus Washington’s attention on Russian behavior in Europe. More recently, the Russian intervention in the U.S. presidential election has put everyone—including the U.S. Senate—on edge. It seems Putin’s appetite for impinging directly upon Washington’s interests seems no less than that of his Soviet predecessors.
The Russian and Japanese governments will continue to work on how to bridge their differences over the islands. The effort to find a pathway to some special initiative that could allow free movement and joint investment across the four islands continues. Abe delivered a letter during his early meeting with Putin, written in Russian, from the Chishima Habomai Shotō Kyojū Renmei, elderly Japanese who had been residents of these islands. Putin noted their sentiments, but did not meet with them nor promise any ready solution to their desire to visit. Visits between the islands might be made easier, a boon to tourism perhaps. And fishermen—the constituency with the most direct economic interests in the resolution of this half century of distance—may be able to fish without impunity in the waters of the Northern Territories/Kuriles regardless of nationality.
The economic potential for Russia may not be insignificant—an eight point plan for Japanese economic initiatives with Russia is in the making. The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry and other ministries signed agreements to explore economic cooperation. Before Putin’s arrival, up to 95 billion yen in loans to Gazprom, Russia’s state energy company, were being considered by private Japanese lenders. The full contours of such an agreement were not publicly disclosed, however, and Japanese companies may still hesitate until more credible signs of Russia compromise are evident.
Yet despite Abe’s economic largesse, Putin demonstrated little of his normal warmth on this visit. He arrived three hours late, keeping Japan’s prime minister waiting in the midst of his home constituents. He refused the offer of a mate for his beloved Akita, a gift from Abe earlier in their diplomatic journey. Despite his second visit to the renowned Judo Dojo, Kōdōkan, in Tokyo where the elders of his favorite sport teach, he did not demonstrate his skills as he had in 2000—a move that could have won him greater popularity among an expectant Japanese public.
Instead of the charming persona he presented to the Japanese then, this Putin seemed far cooler. He gave a pre-visit interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun and Nippon Television in Moscow that cast a chill over the visit. Claiming it was Japan that had abandoned the 1956 framework for resolving the island disputes, Putin laid bare his own calculus: Tokyo must abandon its support for sanctions that had been in place since Crimea.
At the joint press conference after their meeting, Putin took aim at the United States, reminding his Japanese audience that after all it was the United States that had stood between Tokyo and Moscow in the 1950s. Today it is the sanctions against Russia imposed in the wake of Crimea that rankle. Putin suggested that yet again its ally in Washington was holding Japan back.
For now, no tremendous breakthrough appears likely for this relationship which seems frozen in time. A grand bargain may be more appealing at a time when Russian prosperity looks more promising, when bridges across the frigid seas of the northern Pacific are more welcome, and when Japanese security is more assured.
Instead, more modest goals may be prudent for the time-being. The two neighbors would be well served by beginning strategic dialogue they agreed to in the early days of Abe-Putin diplomacy to ensure stable and predictable interactions between their militaries, and by continuing to build the citizen-to-citizen ties that will support their diplomacy at home.