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Thawing Relations Under Fire

 Japanese Sanctions and Russian Security Drills


Things were looking up for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, President Vladimir Putin, and their respective countries due to improving economic ties and because a possible solution to their territorial disputes seemed to be at its closest in recent memory. However, events in August brought Japan’s rapprochement to a halt and in some cases reversed previous gains.


Most of us are aware that on July 17, Ukrainian rebels shot down a Malaysian Airlines passenger plane resulting in worldwide condemnation toward both the rebels and Russia. Russia has been attacked for supporting the rebels and not using its influence to quell the violence in Eastern Ukraine. As a result, the majority of the Western Powers have enacted stiff sanctions on Russia hoping to influence Putin to help decrease hostilities in its neighboring country.


Last month Japan joined its Western allies when it established its own sanctions on the Russian government. Yet the decision was not as easy to come to as it was for Japan’s American and European Union partners. Since becoming Prime Minister again in 2012, Abe has met with Putin five times focusing primarily on economic issues, territorial disputes, and a peace treaty that would officially end World War II between the two nations.


Time and time again since the Fukushima disaster and the moratorium on Japan’s nuclear reactors, Abe has sought to secure and strengthen ties with resource rich nations, Russia included. Japan especially does not want to miss out on Russia’s ongoing natural gas development. Of course, any missed opportunity by Japan means a potential gain for nations that do not toe the Western line, e.g., China (back in May the two countries signed $400-billion dollar deal where Russia will supply a substantial part of China’s energy needs with its abundant natural gas).[1]


Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Japan also is concerned with territorial disputes. Similar to the hotly contested Senkaku-Diaoyu islands that are claimed by both Japan and China, Japan and Russia dispute ownership over islands north of Hokkaido known as the Northern Territories in Japan and as part of the Kuril Islands in Russia. This disagreement is the primary reason the two countries have not signed a peace treaty ending World War II. To give some historical context, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945, its invasion of Manchuria and of the Northern Territories followed. However, invasion of the Northern Territories did not begin until August 18; three days after Emperor Hirohito accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered. In 1952 the United States, Japan, and 47 other nations signed the Treaty of San Francisco, which defined peace terms after the war. The Soviet Union withheld its signature stating a disagreement on the sovereignty of the aforementioned islands as a major factor.[2]


Throughout his visits, it appeared Abe’s government was making significant headway in resolving the islet dispute. Yet after sanctions were approved by the Diet, the Russian government cancelled a Deputy Foreign Minister meeting scheduled for the end of August. A meeting between both nations’ Foreign Ministers scheduled for April has been postponed indefinitely as well. The meetings were specifically meant to discuss the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands issue.[3] To make matter worse, the Russian government decided to hold military drills on the islands, which, similar to former President Dmitry Medvedev’s 2010 visit to the islands, were viewed as “totally unacceptable” by the Japanese government.[4] Most likely the recent events will also influence Putin to cancel his fall visit to Japan. His decision to retaliate against the sanctions and visa restrictions by barring some Japanese citizens from Russia further illustrates the deteriorating relationship.[5]


Japan has often been in a tough spot when it comes to making decisions between its self-interest and the interests of its American and Western allies. As demonstrated by their sanctions, which are much more lenient than its allies, the Japanese government tends to balance the two interests – showing support for its allies, while simultaneously attempting not to alienate potentially beneficial relationships. The last thing Japan and the West want, but which almost seems inevitable, are stronger, more resilient ties between Russia and China. Japan does not want to be left out in the cold economically and knows that it may eventually need Russian backing when it comes to the Senkaku-Diaoyu islands dispute. Ultimately, it would be a shame if the conflict in the West sent relationship building in the East back to square one, but such is the reality of a deeply interconnected, globalized world.



Sean Mulvihill



[1] Anishchuk, Alexei. “As Putin looks east, China and Russia sign $400-billion gas deal.” Reuters. 21 May 2014. Web. 27 Aug 2014.

[2] MOFA. Northern Territories Issue. 2011 March 1. Web. 25 Aug 2014.

[3] Jiji. “Russia puts off islet talks as Putin’s Japan visit plan clouded.” Japan Times. 5 Aug 2014. Web. 25 Aug 2014.

[4] Williams, Carol J. “Japan protests Russian military drills on disputed islands.” Los Angeles Times. 13 Aug 2014. Web. 25 Aug 2014.

[5] Golubkova, Katya and Stanley White (Reporting). Christian Low and Dmitry Zhdannikov (Writing). “Russia, in sanctions retaliation, bars some Japanese citizens.” Reuters. 22 Aug 2014. Web. 25 Aug 2015


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