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The Invasion of Ukraine Turned Japan’s Russia Policy on Its Head

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The Invasion of Ukraine Turned Japan’s Russia Policy on Its Head

From attempts at flattery and concerted diplomacy in 2014, Tokyo has pivoted to sanctions in lockstep with the rest of the G-7.

The Invasion of Ukraine Turned Japan’s Russia Policy on Its Head

Then-Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference in Moscow, Russia, on Jan. 22 2019

Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

When Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in early 2014, Western nations imposed economic sanctions; then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described Russia’s behavior as being better suited to the 19th century. However, the outcry from the West was symbolic at best – hollow at worst – since for the most part, their bilateral relationships with Russia grew more robust rather than weaker. This was exemplified by Germany’s decision to construct Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that would reinforce German energy dependence on an aggressor state.

Germany was not alone. Many other Western countries at the time – the same actors that are rushing to support Ukraine in the ongoing war –  turned a blind eye to Ukraine’s predicament nine years ago. Japan was no outlier. In fact, during the immediate aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, Japan’s relationship with Russia, weighing the rhetoric coming out of the administrative level, seemed to reach its apex.

The speech that then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo gave at the Eastern Economic Forum in 2019, in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was emblematic. In his address, Abe emphasized how Japanese investment benefited Russia by self-producing a 2-minute, 40-second video presentation. He also boasted that 2019 saw a level of “cultural exchange unprecedented in the history of Japan-Russia relations.” And finally, Abe sent an overture to the Russian leader by calling him by his first name, “Vladimir,” and subsequently pronouncing that Abe and Putin were envisioning the “same dream.”

The excessive flattery that Abe delivered to Putin was a reflection of his strong desire to imprint his legacy into the history books by settling a peace treaty with Russia, which would necessarily involve getting back at least some of the contested territory with Russia, commonly referred to as the “Northern Territories” in Japan. 

In order to accomplish this feat, where past administrations had all failed, Abe worked industriously. During his eight years as prime minister in his second tenure, Abe met Putin 27 times, even inviting the Russian president to his hometown once. Subsequently, although Japan has long maintained for quite a while that all four territories should be returned to Japan, Abe lowered the demands to two, based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration that the Habomai and Shikotan islands might be returned to Japan once a peace treaty is signed. 

Ultimately, all these efforts turned out to be futile, which revealed that the feelings between the two leaders were not reciprocal after all. 

In light of the Ukraine war, which has intensified over the previous year, this whole approach toward Russia seems inconceivable in retrospect. Nonetheless, it should be noted that the late Abe received no significant backlash as a result of his apparent foreign policy blunder, considering that the public generally approved of his foreign policy overall. There were even some suggestions from opposition party members in March 2022  that Japan should dispatch Abe to Russia to convince Putin to reach a settlement with Ukraine. 

How the public acquiesced to Abe’s conciliatory stance toward Russia, a state that all the way back in 2014 had occupied a landmass far greater than that of the Northern Territories, seems grotesque in some regard. At the same time, the public’s reaction was understandable, considering that the media was less attuned to the annexation of Crimea when it took place, due to the stealth operation that Russia undertook.

However, Russia’s blatant mobilization of force against Ukraine last February completely changed the perception that Japanese people previously had of Russia. Although Japan imposed sanctions reluctantly and selectively in 2014, facing Russia’s full-on invasion in 2022, the Japanese public overall aligned themselves with the G-7 countries in terms of the menu of sanctions that were put into place. The public reacted enthusiastically to the government’s decision to strengthen sanctions. 

A government-sponsored poll conducted in October 2014, eight months after the annexation of Crimea,  marked the fifth-highest positivity rating toward Russia since the polling started in 1975. However, the same poll in 2022 showed that the Japanese public’s image of Russia is the worst ever recorded.

Although the scale and magnitude of Russia’s military conquests of 2014 and 2022 differ significantly, it’s worth exploring why the Japanese public has responded to the events so differently. One factor is the fixation of the Japanese media on the Ukraine war over the past year. Research conducted by Global News View, a media research institute, showed that during the first half of 2022, 94.7 percent of the Japanese media coverage of international conflicts was concentrated on the war in Ukraine. Some pundits criticized the media for intentionally airing views sympathetic to the Ukrainian cause in order to profit from the public’s pro-Ukrainian stance, further reinforcing the public’s inclination toward Ukraine.

The public’s backing and the media’s coverage have provided a window of opportunity for current Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to diverge his country’s Russia policy incontrovertibly from that of Abe. As noted above, Kishida’s government has mostly followed suit with U.S. and European sanctions, although continuing a joint venture with Russia, Sakhalin 2, a project that provides 9 percent of Japan’s LNG supply. 

A marked example of Kishida’s pro-Ukrainian stance can be derived from reports indicating that Kishida was contemplating visiting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. Such an act would categorically put Japan on Ukraine’s side, further alienating Russia and reinforcing that the conciliatory approach toward Russia under Abe is long gone.

Observing the evolution of Japan’s relations with Russia, it is remarkable to see how drastically the whole attitude of one country could change towards another in a span of less than 10 years. Japan is likely to continue supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes” for the foreseeable future. However, as the public begins to feel the pain due to the rise of energy costs and the potential calamity of a nuclear war, opinions regarding aiding Ukraine will surely change as a result. There is ample evidence to suggest that will be the case, judging by what we have already seen of the public’s transient attitude toward Russia this decade.