It took a recent trip to Japan to hear “Crimea” mentioned whenever the subject of Russia came up. Two years after Russia invaded Ukraine, starting with Crimea and its illegal annexation, one rarely hears about the peninsula these days in Europe or the United States. Distracted by Russian actions in Syria, Western government officials and analysts have essentially written off Crimea as a part of Russia over which Ukraine will never regain possession. When they do focus on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, they zero in on Russia’s ongoing aggression in eastern Ukraine—which merits a strong Western response much like the annexation of Crimea does.
Japanese officials are mindful of Russia’s ongoing aggression in the Donbas region as well. But every time the issue of Russia and Japan-Russian relations came up during a week-long visit to Tokyo last week at the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, our Japanese interlocutors, whether from the government, media, or think tank world, started their reply with Crimea.
In many respects, this is understandable. The Soviet Union seized four islands from the northern part of Japan in the very last days of World War II, and as a result Japan and Russia to this day have not signed a peace treaty more than seventy years after the fighting ended in the Pacific. The return of those islands is a strategic interest for Tokyo.
When Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, many Japanese understood that such aggression should not go unpunished. Failure to respond would set a dangerous precedent, and, given Chinese muscle-flexing in the East and South China Sea areas, Tokyo understands the need to stand up against annexation of one country by another, whether in Europe or Asia.
That is why Japan has joined the United States and the European Union, along with Australia and Canada, among others, in imposing sanctions against the Putin regime for what it has done to Ukraine. To this American, it was refreshing to hear over and over that Russia’s violation of international norms and of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity started with Crimea.
As Chair of the G-7 this year, Japan’s role on the international scene looms larger, enhancing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s interest in turning Japan into a more influential regional and global power. Western media have reported on Abe’s determination to travel to Sochi in May to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin over objections from President Obama. Given that President Obama’s Secretary of State has visited Russia twice in the past year to meet with Putin—undermining Obama’s claim that the United States has led the international isolation of Russia for its invasion of Ukraine—it strikes Japanese officials as hypocritical, understandably so, for the American President to tell Japan’s leader that he cannot do the same.
Abe’s planned visit to Sochi has raised concerns that Japan will ease sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. My visit to Tokyo last week led me to conclude that no such step is in the offing, even if the European Union fails to renew all of its sanctions when they come up for review this summer. Japanese officials and experts understand full well that as long as Russia refuses to return Crimea to Ukrainian control, the relationship with Russia cannot go back to the status quo ante. “Russia cannot change the status quo by force,” one official explained, with China’s activity in the South and East China Seas very much on his mind.
Rarely did the Minsk ceasefire agreement come up in the conversations; that badly flawed deal imposes obligations on both Russia and Ukraine, and to many Europeans, Ukraine is equally guilty for not fulfilling its terms, which include holding local elections in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions currently occupied by Russia and Russian-backed forces.
The Japanese do not see it that way. They see Russia as the clear aggressor and Ukraine as the clear victim. The Japanese with whom I met didn’t raise the need, under the Minsk accord, for Ukraine to pass a constitutional amendment and special legislation to hold the local elections in the Donbas, where Russia-supported forces still engage in hostilities every single day. They view that as none of Russia’s business.
The Japanese recognize the huge problem of corruption in Ukraine, and yet they still have provided $1.5 billion in assistance, not bad by American and European giving standards. Helping Ukraine, they acknowledged, was important for holding off further Russian aggression.
All things considered, it would be better for Abe not to travel to Sochi as part of a larger international effort to isolate the Putin regime. But that effort failed a while ago. In addition to Kerry’s two visits, a number of European leaders have traveled to Russia to meet with Putin, making it hard to argue that the Japanese Prime Minister should take a different approach.
Indeed, Abe seems intent on meeting Putin for several reasons. As chair of the G-7, he wants to be able to report to his fellow democratic leaders (and the G-7 is back to being a gathering of leading democracies since Russia’s expulsion) on Putin’s latest thinking. He also wants to ensure the G-7 stays united in its approach to dealing with Russia.
Since returning to the Prime Minister’s position in 2012, Abe has met with Putin eight times. According to officials close to Abe, however, the Prime Minister is under no illusions that he will find a more accommodating Russian leader and plans to convey Japan’s concerns about Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine as well as Russia’s role in Syria. Abe, it is worth noting, has invited Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Tokyo ahead of the G-7 gathering.
With Putin, Abe wants to explore possibilities for negotiations over the return to Japan of the Northern Territories, but his expectations are very low, according to various Japanese interlocutors. Like countries in the West, Japan has had to deal with the irritating and dangerous rise in the number of Russia military aircraft overflying or buzzing Japanese territory. There were some 500 Russian sorties over or near Japan in the past year alone, according to one military official.
Japan also keeps a weary eye on the Russia-China relationship and does not want to find itself facing a rapprochement between the two to the disadvantage of Tokyo. As one interlocutor put it, Japan is “the only ally facing challenges from Russia and China at the same time.” That said, most Japanese with whom we met are convinced that Beijing is the one calling the shots in its relationship with Moscow.
Japan has bigger fish to fry with Beijing than it does with Moscow. China’s aggressive moves and muscle-flexing in the East and South China Seas have heightened concerns among many Asian countries, not least Japan. Indeed, discussion of China and a possible threat emanating from Beijing dominated most of the discussions last week during my visit.
But whenever Russia came up in the conversations, there was no wavering in Japan’s support for sanctions against the Putin regime because of its invasion of Ukraine and Crimea. As one official put it, “There is no reconsideration of sanctions on Russia.” Among Asian countries, only Australia joins Japan in imposing similar sanctions.
While there are no sanctions in place against Beijing for its activities in the seas of Asia, Japan is frustrated with Europe’s weak, accommodating stance toward China and would like to see, in return for Tokyo’s solidarity on sanctions against Russia, more understanding of Japan’s concerns toward its larger Asian neighbor. Europeans need to be more consistent toward Russia and China, several Japanese officials argued.
Abe’s visit to Putin in Sochi is sure to heighten European and American sensitivity to Japanese interests. But Abe, people with whom I met said, will not soften his position with respect to Moscow as long as Russia occupies Ukrainian territory and violates its sovereignty. Let’s hope the Europeans and Americans maintain a similarly tough and principled stance.