President Vladimir Putin gave a strong reminder for the Japanese people to realize huge perception gaps lie ahead between both countries, as he said that Japan’s alliance with the United States was a hurdle for the peace treaty and territorial talks (“Putin says 'Tempo has been lost' on Japan-Russia peace treaty”; Nikkei Asian Review; March 16, 2019). Every time bilateral summit is held, Japanese people and media fall into wishful thinking that Russia would be willing to return the Northern Territories, become a reliable geopolitical counterbalance against China, and commit herself to deepen bilateral economic development cooperation in the Far East. Certainly, Putin is exploring the pivot to Asia. The Asia Pacific region will be increasingly important in the global power shift, and domestically, under populated and under developed Russian Far East needs foreign direct investments. But that does not make Russia so generous as Japanese people expect.
Abe meets Putin.
Before talking of Russo-Japanese interactions, it is necessary to reexamine fundamental principle of Russian geostrategy, particularly in Europe and the Middle East, as there are many lessons to be learned to foresee the Kremlin’s thoughts and behaviors in Russia’s front door regions. On the other hand, the Asia Pacific region is still the Kremlin’s strategic back door, and the Russian influence there has fallen so drastically after the collapse of the Soviet Union that some Chinese officials even caricatures that this country is their junior partner. Currently, Russian strategy in East Asia is not so clear as those in Europe and the Middle East. Therefore, I would like to mention how Russia acts in both regions, in order to explore her global strategy and Japan policy.
To begin with, let me talk of Europe. As shown in Putin’s well-known comment that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century (“Putin says he wishes the Soviet Union had not collapsed. Many Russians agree.; Washington Post; March 3, 2018), the Kremlin’s strategic priority is to restore Russian power and influence in the Former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations, and to weaken the Western alliance. Therefore, Russia annexed Crimea and sponsors proxy uprising in Donbass in Ukraine; intervened in ethno-religious conflicts in the Caucasus area like Georgia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh; and signed the Union State treaty with Belarus. In addition, Russia has been trying every means to dissolve the Western alliance. Since Russia was critically alarmed at post-Cold War expansion of NATO and the EU to the east, Putin sponsored far right rising in former Warsaw Pact nations, such as Hungary, Czech, Slovakia, and so forth. He went furthermore to intervene in the voting of Western Europe, notably in the Brexit referendum, and also national elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Italy. These manipulations have brought chasms among European nations and rifts in the trans-Atlantic alliance.
From this point of view, I assume that Putin told seriously to divide the security ties between Japan and the United States. Just as Donald Trump’s controversial election pledges were, Putin’s message to Japan is not a poker game. Actually, Russian officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, had told Japanese people to split from the US-Japanese alliance, again and again. In practice, the Kremlin may not force Japan to abolish the alliance with the United States, but they are shaking security partnership of the two countries. In Europe, where Putin has been intervening for years, pro-Russian right wing regimes do not seek exit from the EU and NATO, but they destabilize multilateral institutions of Western democracies. Through bilateral negotiations on the Northern Territories and the Peace Treaty, Japan could fall into another target of Putin’s alliance breaking. Japanese politicians may argue whether to negotiate for a two-island or a four-island return of the Northern Territories among themselves, but that is meaningless in view of Putin’s solid will to dissolve the solidarity of liberal democracies in Europe and Asia.
Also, Japan can learn lessons from Russian geopolitical strategy in the Middle East. The Kremlin is neither interested in the War on Terror, nor any kind of regional order. The priority for Putin is to maximize Russian power and influence in a savage power game. Therefore, he supports the Assad regime in Syria, to secure the naval base since the Soviet era. Also, Russia dares to take contradictory measures. Though Iran is one of the closest partners in the Middle East, Russia has sold S-400 surface to air missiles to Iran’s strategic rival Saudi Arabia, and major regional powers like Turkey and Qatar (“RUSSIA MAY SELL MISSILE SYSTEM TO QATAR, SAUDI ARABIA, SYRIA AND TURKEY, FUELING ALL SIDES OF MIDDLE EAST CONFLICTS”; News Week; January 25, 2018). Actually, the Kremlin balances Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both regional arch rivals compete for their influence. In Syria, Russia endorses Assad with Iran, but that is not the case with Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, and the Kremlin even sponsors pro-Saudi ethnic or religious groups in these countries (“Balancing Act: Russia between Iran and Saudi Arabia”; LSE Middle East Centre Blog; 7 May, 2018). Japan should bear such cold-blooded geopolitics in mind. In East Asia, we can regard pro-American Japan as a Saudi Arabia, and anti-American China as an Iran. It is too wishful to expect Putin’s Russia to check China for Japan.
While Russia acts on savage reality of international politics, quite a few Japanese are preoccupied with “cultural romanticism”. They argue that Japan as an Asian nation explore proud and more independent diplomacy with Russia, rather than associating herself with the West. It sounds brave, but their nationalism is empty and poorly founded, because they hardly give consideration to the behavioral principle of Russia on a global scale. They may stress Japan’s geographical position, ethno-cultural Asianness, and politico-cultural uniqueness from the West, but such a simple-minded emotion coincides with that of the far right in Europe and America. Nationalist extremists in the Atlantic nations assume natural bonds with Putin, simply because they share a white Christian identity and socially traditionalist values, but anyone of common sense understands how ridiculous it is. From this point of view, it is necessary to exonerate Japanese people from wrong perceptions. Remember that Joseph Stalin broke the Neutrality Pact with Japan unilaterally at the end of World War II, just as he did in Europe and the Middle East. Japan is nothing exceptional for Russians, and “cultural romanticists” should not make the same mistake again.
Finally, Japanese policymakers need to reconsider the real meaning of the frequently mentioned Russian complaint that whenever they meet Japanese experts, they are forced to hear about the dispute over the Northern Territories, and they are fed up with it. In my understanding, that implies something deeper than what it literally says. Russians may want to tell the Japanese to “grow up” enough to discuss something else. They may see Japanese in the same perspective as the Japanese see South Korean nationalists who are still preoccupied with the dispute over historical issue. Of course, the territorial issue is vital for Japan, but we must impress the Russians with our global and regional blueprints for the future, in parallel with this. Also, it would be interesting if Japanese experts ask a question in return, what people other than Japanese talk about when they meet the Russians. What do Americans talk about? How about Europeans? How about Chinese? How about Indians, Arabs, and Iranians? All the nations I mentioned here are of high priorities for Russia’s global geopolitical and economic strategy. If the Russians were to reply to this question, it would be helpful to bilateral diplomacy for the future.