How Putin Outplayed Abe in Japan

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How Putin Outplayed Abe in Japan

In this diplomatic sparring match, there was only one winner.

How Putin Outplayed Abe in Japan
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The mid-December two-day visit of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to Japan raised high expectations among many about the prospect of signing a peace treaty that is now 60 years overdue. Among other things, there was also high anticipation for the return of at least two of the four islands that Japan calls the Northern Territories, and Russia calls the Kuril Islands, which Japanese consider “stolen” by Stalin at the very end of the World War II.

The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, went out of his way to make this visit “special” for his Russian guest by arranging for the first day to be spent in his home town, Nagato, in the southern prefecture Yamaguchi of the main island Honshu – a place, famous for its exquisite sake, hot springs, and delicious food. The carefully planned schedule, with a pronounced demonstration of a personal hospitality touch from Abe, listed “relaxing” time in the famous hot springs, and a feast with exotic traditional local food, including exquisite dishes of raw and cooked fugu.

The expectations were unrealistically high, however. Perhaps recognizing that fact, Shinzo Abe banked on a strategy that combined an emphasis on his personal rapport with Putin as the only G7 leader still having amicable relationship with the Russian president, and an extraordinary demonstration of Japanese hospitality to a judo wrestler, who knows a thing or two about the depth of the Japanese culture and martial arts. The expected results were to make it harder for the Russian guest to say “no” to everything, and to offer face-saving concessions of symbolic value to his hosts, if not out of emotional obligation for the hospitality, than at least as lip service for a genuine desire for cooperation. After all, Japan was the first G7 country to grant Putin a state visit since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and was slapped with sanctions by the West.

The visit was the first by Putin Japan in 11 years, and an important moment for the Russian president to melt some ice with the West. Ahead of the visit, however, Putin dashed any hopes the Japanese might have had for this meeting. A few days ahead of his trip, at a meeting with the Japanese press corps in his residence, Putin declared that Russia has no territorial dispute with Japan. Then he promptly and somewhat humiliatingly refused a highly symbolic gift from Shinzo Abe – a male companion to Putin’s Japanese dog Yume. Finally, Putin arrived in Japan over two hours late, without a warning and, as it appeared, for no obvious official reason. An embarrassed Shinzo Abe was shown on national TV waiting in the rain, and being prompted to fill in the time by visiting his late father’s grave. And then, when the Japanese prime minister was hoping that their meeting will finally pick up, Putin once again embarrassed his host. In front of live TV cameras, at the amicable exchange of traditional pleasantries during the initial welcoming ceremony, Putin quite forthrightly refused Abe’s courtesy invitation to enjoy the local food and “relax” in the hot springs after the anticipated (intense) negotiations, with the unequivocal comment “best not to get too tired.” Message sent!

As it seems, well ahead of the visit, both leaders must have understood quite well the impossibility of reaching a comprehensive agreement on either of the controversial issues – the peace treaty and the disputed islands – but both sought to exploit the opportunity to extract domestic political benefits, as well as to send specific signals to foreign counterparts, regardless of the actual outcome of the visit. At the end of the day, both leaders claimed significant achievements, even though by any standard what was agreed upon at the end of the two-day visit was rather modest. More significantly, however, the visit looked more like a judo sparring between two opponents than a meeting between friends, and one of them did not emerge a winner from this “friendly” match.

Russia’s Side

As a nuclear regional great power, Russia has little to no pressing need to solve either of the two controversial issues. It has lived without a peace treaty for 60 years, since signing a formal declaration ending the active hostilities with Japan in October of 1956. In fact Moscow has blocked any further signing of a peace treaty because of the Japanese insistence on the return of the four islands: the two bigger ones, Etorofu and Kunashiri, and the two smaller ones, Shikotan and Habomae. Since the 1980s, and then more actively after the end of the Cold War, Russia has signaled its readiness to consider the return of the two small islands, for the right “price.” But the other two are clearly off limits.

Back in 2010, as a Russian president at the time, and then in 2015, as prime minister, Dimitri Medvedev visited the two larger islands and clearly demonstrated his affinity toward them. He caused many Japanese to gulp when he declared that they are “an important region of our country.” His words caused a flurry of diplomatic protest by Tokyo. But in reality, no serious policymaker either in Moscow or in Tokyo will actually contemplate the realistic possibility of the return of the two big islands, as they are of extreme strategic importance for Russia. As an even more unequivocal reminder of this fact, much to the chagrin of Abe’s government, Russia deployed anti-ship missile systems Bal and Bastion there just days before Putin’s visit to Tokyo.

The two large islands, which the Japanese call Etorofu and Kunashiri, and the Russians call Iturup and Kunashir, hold enormous strategic importance for Russia. As a starter, they protect the entrance to the Russian-dominated Sea of Okhotsk, where many of the Russian nuclear submarines are kept ready for action. Unable to keep them as quiet as the U.S. Navy’s subs, allowing them to undetectably roam the depths of the Pacific Ocean, Russia has long ago opted for the second best option – to keep them well protected in a relatively limited body of water, such as the Sea of Okhotsk. Also, the islands are at a location where hot and cold ocean currents meet, which protects the straits between them from freezing during the Arctic winters, and as such affords unrestricted access for the Far East Russian fleet to the Pacific Ocean year-round. Finally, the sea bottom abounds with unexplored oil and gas reserves, and a large quantity and quality of fish. The islands themselves are also a strategic source of rare minerals, such as rhenium, used in the production of supersonic jets, and gold. The security importance of the two big islands and the exclusive economic zone connected to them make the return of the islands rather unlikely.

At different times over the past decades, however, Russians have signaled certain conditional readiness to give back to Japan the two small islands, which are located on the outer side of the chain and of less strategic importance. In exchange, Moscow wants a formal peace treaty and allegedly serious economic aid. For Moscow, a peace treaty holds a symbolic importance for its global legitimacy. At the onset of the World War II, Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, signed a neutrality pact to keep Japan off the Soviet Union’s Far East back. Despite the fact that the two countries were former enemies, the Imperial Japanese government honored the pact to the very end of the war, and never attacked the Soviet Union. Stalin, however, reneged on the agreement in the very last days of the war. Seeing the impossibility of receiving half of Japan, as allegedly promised at the Yalta conference in 1944, he declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945, on the eve of the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, in a desperate attempt to grab as much territory as possible. However, still bogged down traveling through Manchuria, most of the Soviet troops barely made it in time to take only the four islands.

Traditionally occupied by indigenous people over the course of the history, the islands culturally stand closer to Japan. In the 18th century, during the heights of the shogunate isolationist reign, Japanese rulers had little real interest in the islands. When Russia under Catherine the Great conquered the Far East, in 1786 she claimed the islands had been “discovered” by Russian explorers, and hence were under Russian sovereignty. In two subsequent agreements with Russia in the latter part of the 19th century, the new Japanese state acquired ownership of the four islands and solidified its rule over them while recognizing Russian rule over Sakhalin, the much larger island off the coast of the mainland. In the aftermath of the humiliating Russian defeat in the 1904-5 war with Japan, the Japanese recaptured Sakhalin and large parts of Manchuria and Korea. Russia was pressured to cede control of the southern half of Sakhalin as part of a peace treaty with Japan.

For a period of about 100 years – from mid-19th century to mid-20th century – Japan had control over the islands and beyond, enshrining in the minds of regular Japanese the image of the territory as inherently Japanese. This poses a diplomatic conundrum; any agreement for recovering sovereignty over the two small islands must be presented as a “temporary” first step toward regaining full sovereignty over all four of them. But, the importance of the islands, as discussed above, makes the likelihood of Russia returning all four of them to Japan close to zero.

The potential wording of a hypothetical agreement even for the two small islands is also problematic. Would the Russians “return” the islands, which will be an outright admission of “grabbing” territory that was not theirs in a first place? Or, would they “give” them to Japan, which will imply a sort of “gift”?

The former option not only will be unacceptable for Moscow under almost any circumstance but will also leave the question of the eventual return of the larger islands as a pending moral topic that will continue to beset the relationship between the two countries. Such wording would be unacceptable for most Russians, not just the ultra-nationalists, and could seriously damage Putin’s credibility, or for that matter the political standing of any later leader in his place. Meanwhile, any language implying a “gift” will be unacceptable for the Japanese. The Soviet invasion is still very painful for many Japanese. Some 17,000 people had to flee the islands in the aftermath, with many more dying or practically being enslaved by the Soviets. Some of the survivors are still alive. Their voices hold a serious moral sway within the Japanese society, and their stories are internalized by many as a matter of national pride. The nationalistic groups repeat these voices as echo chambers throughout Japan, too, and will make sure that such an outcome will be unacceptable for any Japanese government.

Japan’s Side

Japan is in a much weaker position than Russia on the issue at hand. Over the past years, with an aggressively rising China, and the United States increasingly uncommitted to unconditional Japanese protection, Japan has sought out alternative sources of regional security. While Abe’s course to remilitarization has certainly been welcomed by the United States, if not actively encouraged as a way to see Tokyo taking partial ownership of its national security, the military emancipation of Japan has worsened the security dilemma in the region, and provoked China’s more belligerent stand against Japan.

This also comes on the heels of a warmer China-Russia relationships, the signing of a multi-billion dollar pipeline deal, and an ever increasing flow of Chinese investments in the Russia. Moscow sees both China and Japan on relatively equal footing with regard to their potential for economic investments, but with different geostrategic importance. While Russia needs the Chinese strategic partnership in their joint balancing act against the United States, it also wants to pull Tokyo out of the American orbit, seeing it as perhaps the weakest link of the current anti-Russian balancing by the West. Japan, for its part, needs to stay on the good side of Russia in the worst-case scenario of hostilities with China. Abe himself seems also pressured by time, as the upcoming Trump administration may become more friendly with Putin over time and further diminish the American security guarantees to Tokyo. A greater U.S.-Russia rapprochement will also render less relevant the mediator role Japan hopes to play in the current stand-off between Russia and the West.

An agreement with Russia for a peace treaty and over the disputed islands would have also highly important symbolic power for Abe’s administration. First, it would give greater legitimacy and popularity to Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) inside Japanese domestic politics. Such a rise of popularity will lend further credence to his attempt to change the constitution, the most radical act since the country regained its independence after the postwar U.S. occupation. While deeply skeptical of the actual need for the constitutional change, the majority of the Japanese hold also a strong national pride that is emotionally injured by the wide perception of the Northern Territories as having been “stolen” by Russia. According to recent Pew Research, Japanese public attitudes against Russia are ranked among the most critical in the world. If Abe were to succeed in concluding a favorable agreement with Russia over the peace treaty and the disputed islands, this would give him a boost for more radical domestic reforms.

In addition, Abe has a personal ambition to conclude a peace treaty as part of his desire to bring a finishing touch to a family legacy. His father, Shintaro Abe, as a Japanese foreign minister in the 1980s worked hard with Mikhail Gorbachev to make a peace treaty accord happen. On his death bed, right after the end of the Cold War, he expressed to his son his dying wish that a peace treaty would someday be signed, and the Japanese islands returned.

Reality Check

Having entered the negotiations with the clear understanding that no substantial agreement can be concluded at this point of time, both the Japanese and the Russians engaged in veiled diplomatic sparring. Abe sought to envelop his Russian guest with traditional Japanese hospitality, and use his individual charisma and personal rapport with Putin as a way to mesmerize the Russian leader and thus to deny him the opportunity to reject what appeared to be a reasonable offer. For his part, Putin sought to belittle and dismiss the extravagance of the hospitality by arriving fashionably late for his official visit, thus demonstrating disregard for what Japanese consider a painfully meticulous sign of respect – punctuality. Putin also used traditional blunt bullying tactics, such as feeding his huge and menacingly barking dog in front of the cameras of the clearly uncomfortable Japanese journalists only days before the visit, and then going on to deny that Russia has any territorial disputes with Japan.

In the aftermath, both leaders claimed credit and “success,” but it was only the Russian leader that emerged as a winner. The 70-plus economic agreements completed largely during the second – more business-oriented – day of the visit do not represent some significant Japanese financial investment in the Russian economy. Not a small number by absolute standards, $2.5 billion worth of joint projects must nonetheless be rather disappointing for the Russians on the whole. Nevertheless, Putin brought back home agreements for some “economic activities” on the disputed islands, and relaxed visa requirements for Russian business people, which can be extended  at a later stage to general Russian visitors to Japan.

What was ostensibly missing from his departing goody-bag, however, was an offer for multi-billion dollars loans by Japanese financial institutions, to a degree perhaps because such an act would have made them vulnerable to technically breaking the sanctions against Russia, and partially because in the current situation such loans seem too risky. Waste-recycling technologies and wind-power technologies can hardly replace missing offers for additional large-scale investment by Japanese car-makers or for advanced Japanese high technologies in more “sensitive” areas. Not to mention that the matter of Japan’s possible unilateral breaking of the sanctions against Russia was a priori removed off the negotiating table, which may well explain Putin’s subsequent snubs.

Abe’s achievements, however, were even more modest. None of the hoped large-scale investment projects, such as a possible Japanese participation in the privatization of Rosneft, the government-owned Russian oil company, materialized. Igor Sechin, the head of Rosneft, has given clear indications that his company will be looking elsewhere for potential investors.

The moral blow to Abe, however, is what matters the most. In the aftermath of the visit, the Kyodo news agency published a poll, according to which Abe’s popularity not only did not gain any points from this “spa diplomacy” but has actually dropped. A seemingly innocent comment by Putin in the eve of his departure to Japan was also not lost on the Japanese public. In what many interpreted as an openly humiliating demonstration by Putin of his ability to meddle in Japanese politics the same way he probably has impacted the American elections, the Russian president joked that if the opposition in the Diet, the Japanese parliament, gave the prime minister any hard time, he would unleash his dog on them.

Putin’s visit to Japan had strong symbolic importance for both countries but brought little significance to the substantive issues at hand. Although both leaders claimed to have achieved a great deal, in the aftermath it seems as though Putin had arrived with the intention to undermine the Japanese prime minister’s power, while also demonstrating that the cordon sanitaire around Russia is not as solid as it may seem. Bringing Japanese readiness to accommodate the most hated world leader in the West, Abe managed to demonstrate that the Washington-led opposition against Russia is a facade composed of reluctant allies, allegedly bullied by the United States. Far more important than the latest warming up toward Moscow by freshmen NATO members, such as Bulgaria and Hungary, Putin’s stunt in Japan represents one more step toward a greater resurgence of Russia on the world stage, and an act that precedes the possible warming up toward Russia by traditional U.S. allies France or Germany after upcoming elections in both countries in 2017.

As a long-time judo wrestler, Putin aimed at turning the strength of his opponent into his advantage. His Japanese visit seemed to be a friendly sparring match, but even those have winners and losers. In this case, there is no question about who is who. In the greater context of Aleppo’s fall and the controversial role Russia has allegedly played in the American presidential elections, Putin seems one step closer to the geopolitical ippon he has always dreamed about.

Liubomir K. Topaloff is an Associate Professor of Politics in Meiji University, Tokyo.