When One Door Closes…

Could a surprising gift of disputed Russian islands to Japan end up pulling Tokyo away from Washington?


In the big, messy dance of international politics, the United States is trying to prevent Russia from partnering up. While in Tokyo this week for a state visit, Barack Obama may pressure Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to back U.S.-led sanctions against Russia — just as Tokyo and Moscow have the best opportunity in decades to grow closer together.

One of the recurrent patterns of Russia’s foreign policy is to look East when it is blocked in the West. Stonewalled by Europe and the United States following his mid-March annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought China’s support. And although Moscow and Beijing have encountered frictions in their relationship, like protracted negotiations over Russian gas prices, overall Putin’s engagement with China seems to be working. Sino-Russian relations, China’s President Xi Jinping said in mid-April, have reached historic highs. And Putin, in a public Q&A session on April 17, said Russia’s quasi-alliance with Beijing is a "substantial factor in international politics" that will influence the very "architecture of international relations."

However, Putin does not want to be smothered by China. He understands that his country’s growing dependence on its mighty neighbor narrows his policy options, reduces his bargaining power, and undercuts Russia’s global leverage. To hedge his bets, Putin has been trying to engage with other Asian players, including Vietnam and South Korea. Most importantly, since the beginning of his third presidential term in 2012, Putin has committed a major effort to improving relations with Japan.

The biggest obstacle to warming ties between Russia and Japan hasn’t changed for almost 70 years: Japan’s claims on what it calls the Northern Territories, the four islands of the Kurile chain just off the island of Hokkaido, which Tokyo lost to Russia at the end of World War II — and has tried to recover ever since. The Southern Kuriles, as Russia calls them, are home to just over 16,000 people. They are strategically important to Moscow because they bar entry into the Sea of Okhotsk, playing an important role in facilitating Russia’s naval deployment into the Pacific and securing air defense in the Far East.

Yet it is precisely because Moscow now feels so isolated, facing Western sanctions and international condemnation over its Ukraine policy, that Tokyo has an excellent opportunity to negotiate.

The last time Russia experienced something similar to its current international isolation was in the early 1980s, when, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the declaration of martial law in Poland, Moscow faced Western economic sanctions, and hostile rhetoric from Ronald Reagan. It was then that the Kremlin seriously considered making territorial concessions to Japan.

Declassified documents from the Russian archives shine light on a May 1983 meeting of the Soviet Politburo, in which the ruling body discussed how to respond to G-7 solidarity. General Secretary Yuri Andropov called for a "compromise" that would entice Japanese Premier Yasuhiro Nakasone away from his alignment with Reagan’s anti-Soviet policies. Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko proposed to give up the islands — which he called "trivial dots in the ocean" — if this could mean rapprochement with Japan. "This would be a prestigious offer," Gromyko said — meaning that it was good enough to tempt Nakasone away from the United States.

That discussion did not translate into action, however. Acceptable to the diplomats, territorial concessions were unpalatable to the military. Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov felt the armed forces were already "entrenched" in the islands, and could not just hand them over. Andropov’s declining health stalled decision-making, while an improvement in Sino-Soviet relations made an anti-USSR alliance in Asia seem much less likely. Nevertheless, even the hardliners Andropov and Gromyko, who was nicknamed Mr. No for his obstinacy, entertained territorial concessions for the sake of a better relationship with Japan.

Could the realist Putin also be open to a territorial settlement to achieve a much overdue peace treaty with Japan? There are indications that he is heading in that direction. Putin, an avid judo enthusiast, has agreed that Russia would seek a deal with Japan on the basis of hikiwake — a judo term for a draw. As early as 2001, Putin, in a joint declaration with then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, signaled readiness to return at least two islands to Japan. The dialogue stalled for years but Mori’s visit to Moscow as Abe’s personal envoy in February 2013, followed by Abe’s own talks with Putin in April, and again on the sidelines of the G20 summit in September, suggested that the two countries were edging towards a deal. Abe, conspicuously, was the only prominent "Western" leader to join Putin in Sochi for the opening of the Winter Olympics in February, a sign of Japan’s readiness to deepen dialogue with Russia at a time when other G7 players shunned Putin.

Although Tokyo’s official position remains unchanged — all four islands in return for a peace treaty — Japan watchers have been abuzz with speculation that the government may settle for less. Former diplomat and Russia specialist Kazuhiko Togo said in December that the two countries are now in a "unique situation" to achieve a breakthrough on the basis of a compromise, which would give Japan at least two of the four islands and, perhaps, a little more.

Likewise, Putin’s annexation of Crimea has earned him ample patriotic capital that could be usefully expended on a hikiwake with Japan. Crucially, just like Andropov in the early 1980s, Putin desperately needs a breakthrough in foreign relations. Rapprochement with Japan would not only lessen Russia’s international isolation but also help bring much-needed Japanese capital to the country’s underdeveloped Far East. All of this makes for a unique opportunity to achieve a lasting territorial settlement.

Where do Tokyo’s interests lie? Putin’s annexation of Crimea — unilateral revision of international borders through force — is not the kind of precedent that bodes well for Japan, given China’s claims on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, which Japan administers. Nor does it suit Tokyo’s preference for peaceful, negotiated solutions.

Tokyo must also consider U.S. preferences. Washington still believes that a Russo-Japanese rapprochem
ent would be bad for U.S. fortunes in Asia and for the U.S.-Japan alliance. In fact, throughout the Cold War, the United States resorted to arm-twisting to keep the Japanese in line on Russia — perhaps most egregiously in 1956, when then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles sabotaged prospects for a Soviet-Japanese settlement by threatening that if Japan relinquished its claims over the disputed islands, the United States would feel entitled to keep Okinawa for itself.

Today, the United States shuns naked pressure, though it clearly still expects Tokyo to follow suit on sanctions against Russia, which Abe now has reluctantly endorsed. Yet joining these sanctions may quash hopes of a territorial settlement with Russia and could also lead Putin to abandon his neutrality in favor of endorsing Beijing’s position in the territorial dispute with Japan, a prospect made all the more likely by Obama’s April 23 affirmation that the United States would defend Japan’s rights to the Senkakus. 

These sanctions will also raise regional tensions. Here, 1983 also serves as a useful reference point. At the time, the Russians, unable to weaken the anti-Soviet front in Asia and agitated and frightened by perceived enemy encirclement, shot down a civilian Korean airliner, killing all 269 people onboard. The tragedy of the KAL 007 contributed to the spiral of military escalation in late 1983, bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear war, in which Japan — as Moscow was only too keen to remind — would have served as one of the prime battlefields.

Putin is not quite as nervous. But his reaction to pressure will be to apply counter-pressure by building up military forces and conducting exercises in the Far East. Russia has already heightened military activities by sending bombers on flights around Japan, a move that the Russian Ministry of Defense has linked to Abe’s support for U.S. sanctions. All of this is certainly not in Japan’s interest.

Throughout the Cold War, when faced with a choice of a rapprochement with Russia or a closer alliance with the United States, Tokyo has consistently opted to lean to Washington’s side. Nakasone did that much in 1983, to Moscow’s undoubted frustration. "We must see the danger in relation to Japan," Gromyko argued 10 months after his "prestigious offer" that was never made. "Japan considers itself a kind of a NATO member. It kind of moved into the North Atlantic." If this is how Putin comes to perceive Japan’s current policy, all the painstaking progress towards better Russo-Japanese relations will be rapidly undone.

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