In the last twelve months, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin found enough time to have three face-to-face meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, not counting the many encounters on the sidelines of various international fora and other senior-level meetings. The leaders last met again in Moscow two weeks ago. At the meeting’s conclusion, they agreed to continue their dialogue and to meet again at least two more times by the end of the year.
Such an ambitious pace for summits should raise some eyebrows. With Russia still beset by sanctions and quasi-isolated on the world stage, these meetings represents something of an aberration. And at least in public, Abe and Putin have a much warmer rapport than Putin shares with any of the other G7 leaders.
For Putin, these regular meetings with his Japanese colleague have both symbolic and practical benefits.
Symbolically, Abe’s friendship shows that Russia is not completely shunned by all the countries in what can very broadly be described as the “Western” camp. Domestically, the warm relationship between the two leaders is shown to be sowing discord among Western allies, if not yet fatally splitting them. And who knows what the future brings? After all, if an influential country in the so-called “Western” alliance communicates with the Kremlin, others may consider joining the conversation soon, too, at some point.
More pragmatically, with the Kremlin’s post-Crimea “pivot to the East” strategy currently heavily reliant on cooperation with China, Putin is looking to diversify his options in the region should relations with Beijing take a wrong turn. And thus far, his gambit appears to be paying off. Moscow has for the better part of a decade tried to entice Japan into investing in Russia. Apart from the joint project of developing the LNG terminal at Sakhalin-II, all those enticements have yielded almost nothing.
Last December’s meeting between Putin and Abe, in the Japanese Prime Minister’s hometown of Nagato, represented a sea change. Japanese companies all of a sudden became willing to invest in a country with shrinking consumer demand and slim chances for realizing meaningful growth. Mitsui Group, admittedly a Japanese pioneer in the Russian market, announced the purchase of a 10 percent stake in Russia’s R-Pharm, for a staggering $200m, while Sojitz Corporation, supported by the Japanese state-backed investment fund, expressed interest in modernizing and running the regional airport in Khabarovsk, a city of some 600,000 in Russia’s Far East, adjаcent to the Chinеse border. Additionally a group of renowned Japanese architects and urbanists, supported by a team of Japanese investors, announced plans to transform the provincial town of Voronezh, 320 miles to the south of Moscow, into a pleasant, modern, walkable city.
Abe’s goal remains negotiating a final territorial settlement with Russia over the Kuril Islands—a real sore spot for Tokyo. Back in 2010, when then-President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to the Kurils, the Japanese denounced the stunt as an “unprecedented insult”; two years later, they described Medvedev’s return visit as “a cold shower”. In his third term, Putin has signaled the possibility for an opening.
Russia’s official media insisted that Putin had made no concessions during the Nagato negotiations. However, leading up to the summit, the Russian President dropped some hints as to how a deal might possibly emerge. In a September interview with Bloomberg, Putin said that Russia does not trade in territories. However, he went on to refer to a hard-won “compromise” with Beijing where a “part of the territory [some disputed islands on the Amur river —ed] was permanently assigned to Russia and part of the territory permanently assigned to the People’s Republic of China”. It’s important to remember that most Russians see that episode as a territorial concession to its powerful neighbor; Putin’s elegant wording made it sound much more equitable. Later, in a December interview to Nippon TV and The Yomiuri Shimbun, Putin reiterated his willingness to seek a solution to the peace treaty problem on the basis of the 1956 Declaration, which envisaged the transfer of two of the four Kuril Islands to Japan.
While it’s impossible to know for sure what is really going on, we appear to be witnessing an intricate staged spectacle—a simulated struggle between the two countries over their respective national interests, when in truth the dispute over the Kurils appears to have already been settled. The newfound willingness of the Japanese to invest in comparatively stagnant Russia is a powerful tell.
The key to understanding the dynamic is the looming reelection of Vladimir Putin to the Russian Presidency in 2018. No final deal will be announced before Putin wins his fourth term, because the repercussions of its announcement are an unnecessary variable in a carefully stage-managed re-anointment. On the other hand, the kabuki theater on display this year only helps the Russian President look good: the larger the Japanese investments in the Russian economy, the more visible are Putin’s accomplishments in settling a lingering dispute with an important neighbor.
But rest assured that the marketing for the deal will commence as soon as polling stations close on March 18 of next year. If the elections produce the expected outcome, the Kremlin’s pundits and policy wonks will readily explain to the Russians why remote rocks far in a cold sea should be abandoned to Japan.