Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, the world wondered what the Kremlin would do next. On Tuesday, all eyes looked to the Pacific as it launched military exercises in the disputed Kuril Islands. In response, Tokyo called the drills "totally unacceptable," shifting away from the possibility of rapprochement that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was seeking.
Abe had been forging closer ties with Moscow than his predecessors in hopes of reaching an agreement on the contested islands. Russia offered Abe a major diplomatic scoring opportunity at a time when the Japanese prime minister’s nationalistic tendencies were threatening to isolate him and his nation in the region. Since becoming prime minister in 2012, Abe and Putin have met five times — though their countries are still technically fighting World War II — to mend fences.
Abe recently ruffled his neighbors’ feathers when he sought to alter the Japanese constitution so that his country could protect itself militarily. That looked like a nationalistic move to regional powers and further chilled its already frosty relations with China and North Korea. "Putin has cozied up to China but also feels vulnerable in the Pacific," Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian Studies at Temple University, said. "A mutual partnership is a useful hedging strategy for both Japan and Russia."
But Russia’s latest foray could undercut Abe’s diplomatic progress with Moscow and leave Tokyo exposed in a region where it has fewer friends than ever.
"The fact that Russia began military exercises in the disputed islands is symbolically very big," said Yuki Tatsumi, a senior associate at the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based think tank. "Russia seems to be testing how Japan would respond … "This puts Tokyo in a bind with China too. If Abe responds weakly, China may see this as an opening to ratchet up its own dispute with Japan over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea."
Japan has been keen to access Russian oil, gas, and coal over the years, but especially since nuclear power plants were shut down after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. "Japan has to consider its own domestic needs," said Emily Stromquist, an energy analyst at the political risk consultancy, Eurasia Group. "One of which is controlling the rising cost of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) imports." In 2013, Russia supplied approximately 10 percent of Japan’s LNG supply and 7 percent of its oil, according to Eurasia Group. A peace treaty between Moscow and Tokyo would allow massive Japanese investment in Russian energy resources, ensuring a more diversified supply.
But the shifting geopolitical environment pulled the rug out from Abe’s plans and left Japan walking a diplomatic tightrope between Moscow and Washington. As a country disputing territory with Russia and as a key partner of the United States’, Japan had to condemn Russia’s actions in Crimea. But Tokyo’s response has been largely symbolic, confined to a few minor exports, such as Crimean wine. Just days before it seemed that Abe’s strategy was working. On Aug. 7, Russian exempted Japan from the Kremlin’s retaliatory sanctions against the West, leaving a deal over the Kuril islands on the table. That was whisked away Tuesday when Moscow mobilized 1,000 troops for military drills on two of the four contested islands.