If Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s territorial dispute strategy was to thwart China in the south as he spoke to Russia in the north, it’ll need some re-thinking. As The Diplomat reported yesterday, Russia began conducting a military drill on the disputed Kuril Islands. The drill is hugely provocative and has deeply upset the Japanese government, which says that it will “strongly protest” Russia’s audacity in the Kurils. The drill is not a small operation either–it involved 1,000 troops, a handful of attack helicopters, and other military hardware. This incident formally puts a stop to whatever progress Tokyo and Moscow had attained towards a peaceful resolution of the long-standing dispute between the two countries.
Recently, Tokyo sanctioned Moscow over its actions in Ukraine following the controversial downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, likely by Russian-armed Ukrainian separatists. At that time, I speculated that Japan would side with Europe and the United States on Russia, even if Abe had incentives to move ahead with talks on the final status of the Kuril Islands. With this week’s military drill, Russia signaled to Japan that progress on the dispute will be impossible unless Japan considers taking an independent path from the West on its relations with Russia. Tokyo, in the meantime, is highly unlikely to do this.
Geopolitically, this development in Russo-Japanese relations is a reminder of how far-flung crises can spread their contagion to remote disputes. Additionally, it emphasizes the extent to which Japan’s hands are tied in its ability to conduct foreign policy independently from its alliance with the United States and overall alignment with the West. Even if Tokyo would gain in the long-term by easing its reaction to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, doing so would have short-term costs for Tokyo’s relations with the West and possibly alienate it within Asia.
For the moment, it appears as if the Kuril Islands dispute–which once appeared as one of the more promising high-profile Asian territorial disputes that was heading towards resolution–will be gridlocked, caught up in the geopolitical shockwaves of the Ukrainian crisis. Until that crisis is resolved, Japan and Russia will likely make scant progress on the Kuril Islands issue. Even if the Ukrainian crisis heads towards a resolution, what will be necessary on top of that is for Russia to normalize its relations with the West, which will include the lifting of sanctions. As long as Vladimir Putin remains in charge in Moscow, it is highly unlikely that Japan–no matter how badly it wants to–will be able to move forward with the dispute.