Russia’s relations with Japan have rarely been amiable, alternating mostly between hostile and chilly. Moscow harbors hard feelings over the brutal defeat it suffered at Tokyo’s hands more than a century ago. Japan, meanwhile, still contests control of the Kuril Islands, which fell to Russia after World War II and now house a Russian military outfit. More than lost territory, the islands represent a vulnerable northern front for Japan, adding to Tokyo’s security concerns. But on Thursday, as EU members were scurrying to keep sanctions on Russia for another six months, Moscow was trying to bury the hatchet with Tokyo — a critical ally in the Western front against Russia — once and for all. President Vladimir Putin made a long-awaited journey to Japan for a two-day summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during which the leaders will discuss a range of projects to increase their countries’ cooperation. Despite the failures of past attempts at reconciliation, shifts in the global order over the next year could pave the way for Russia and Japan to put their differences behind them at last.
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For seven decades, Russia and Japan have found themselves on opposing sides of various international conflicts, from the Cold War to Russia’s current standoff with the West. Furthermore, because they never signed a formal peace accord when World War II ended, they have been legally limited in their technical and business cooperation. Still, Moscow and Tokyo have continually tried to cultivate warmer relations, hoping to collaborate on their mutual interests in security, investment, energy and the balance of power in East Asia. Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe — father of the current prime minister — was on the brink of a deal with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to resolve their countries’ unfinished business in the 1980s. In fact, on his deathbed in 1991, the elder Abe supposedly told his son that a Russo-Japanese rapprochement was his “dying wish.” Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin claimed to have 14 different proposals for settling peace and island agreements with Japan. But when Tokyo (under pressure from Washington) made it clear that the deal would not entail Japanese firms doing business in Russia, Yeltsin locked the proposals in his briefcase.
Since Putin and Abe took office, though, Russia and Japan’s interests have aligned more and more, bringing the countries closer than ever to a final reconciliation. Russia has been keen to fill Japan’s need for alternative energy suppliers in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Similarly, Japanese firms have long been eager to tap into the Russian market. Each country sees in the other an opportunity to diversify its international ties, a goal that has become particularly important for Russia since its relations with the West have soured. In 2004, Putin paved the way for warmer relations with China when he ended a 300-year-old territorial dispute that was a symbol of the Sino-Soviet split. Tokyo saw Moscow’s willingness to concede strategic territory to China as an indication that it might be willing to do the same for Japan. Regaining control of the Kurils has become increasingly critical to Japan, which wants to secure its northern flank so it can focus on growing tensions — particularly with China — to its south. At the same time, Tokyo wants to ensure that Moscow does not get too cozy with Beijing.
In 2013, Russia and Japan were once again on the verge of a comprehensive deal that included a peace treaty, an incremental end to the territorial dispute and a string of investment initiatives. Putin and Abe had reportedly even planned a grand summit in Japan to mark the deal’s signing. Then, Russia’s relations with the West took a turn for the worse in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine. Japan jumped on board the sanctions regime led by the United States and European Union, and the summit was postponed indefinitely — until now.
Nearly three years after the deadlock began, the cracks are beginning to show in the West’s united front against Moscow. The European Union extended sanctions on Russia today, but as the bloc becomes more divided in the next year, it will have a harder time mustering the unanimity it needs to keep the measures in place. The incoming U.S. presidential administration, moreover, appears amenable to ending the sanctions regime, which President-elect Donald Trump’s advisers, as well as his pick for secretary of state, have criticized. Instead of punishments, the Trump administration could turn to incentives in its negotiations with Moscow, freeing U.S. allies to pursue warmer relations with Russia without fear of Washington’s reprisal. Tokyo may soon have the freedom to resume its rapprochement with Russia, and Moscow may find an opportunity to reshape its position in the world.
The new administration has also sparked uncertainty in Japan over whether the United States will continue its partnerships in East Asia. During his campaign, Trump suggested that Tokyo should shoulder more of the responsibility — and cost — for securing the region. In addition, the president-elect has already laid out a plan to scrap the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, an important component of Abe’s economic reforms. Like many of the United States’ European allies, Japan has been led to reconsider its position toward Russia by Trump’s campaign promises.
So far, Japan and Russia have deferred an overarching solution to address their historical differences in their latest round of talks, as each country tries to find its footing in the shifting global order. Having annexed Crimea, Russia cannot compromise its territorial integrity. Likewise, Japan will probably wait for the United States and Europe to take a more definitive stand on sanctions before it makes its own decision on the matter. In the meantime, the countries are focusing on developing their economic, energy and investment relationships and discussing ways to increase their security ties. They even struck a minor agreement to allow joint economic activity on the Kuril Islands — a milestone for the two countries, however small. For now, Moscow and Tokyo are looking for areas of mutual benefit on which they can begin to build their relationship, while keeping the door open to a wider bargain later.