Keep an eye on Russia

In recent days, Russia has announced plans to tighten sanctions on North Korea, with an emphasis on arms, spare parts, and luxury goods — this is the first concrete step Russia has taken in regard to sanctions since the aftermath of the October nuclear test.

While Russia has its own reasons to be irritated with North Korea, due to North Korea’s outstanding debts to Russia from the Soviet period, I cannot help but wonder if this step has more to do with Russia’s relations with other regional powers than with North Korea. I am thinking, of course, of Russo-Japanese relations.

With Abe and Putin due to meet soon on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Germany, Russia could very well be taking this step, which brings it closer to Japan’s position, as a way of creating some momentum towards a grand bargain with Japan that resolves the Northern Territories issue, strengthens energy ties, and gives both Japan and Russia greater strategic flexibility in Northeast Asia. The logic of closer Russo-Japanese ties was spelled out during Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov’s February visit to Japan, during which officials discussed creating “A Relationship Grounded in Shared Strategic Interests.”

The time for Russo-Japanese rapprochement may be right. As noted by Asahi‘s Yoshibumi Wakamiya back in December, Russo-Japanese relations tend to move in fifty-year cycles, and the regional environment is such that both Moscow and Tokyo could see the value in overcoming the thorny and heretofore irresolvable Northern Territories issue for the sake of larger strategic interests. For Russia, greater cooperation with Japan reduces its dependence on China as a regional partner, whose growth, after all, is potentially harmful to Russian control of Siberia. (And it will also help raise the bidding price for its energy resources.) For Japan — for Abe — rapprochement with Russia will give Japan that much more strategic independence in the region, a move to greater strategic flexibility to match the similar shift underway in US Asia policy. (As a result, US tension with Russia may not have any impact on Tokyo’s Russia policy.)

Securing a grand bargain with Russia may well become more appealing to Abe as his domestic political situation weakens, particularly if the Upper Elections go poorly. Like his grandfather Kishi, Abe has come to rely on trips abroad that show himself playing the statesman to raise his popular support and thus enable him to pursue other parts of his agenda. As George Packard wrote of Kishi, “Kishi tried to strengthen his power case through popular support, making trips to Southeast Asia, Washington, Europe, and Latin America, but he never succeeded in launching a ‘Kishi boom’ or even in developing a large popular following. Nor was he the type of politician who could play the ‘strong-man role’ that Yoshida had made famous.” And for Abe, sensitive to his position as an LDP prince, the appeal of reaching an agreement that proved elusive to earlier generations of LDP leaders may prove irresistible. (Remember that his late father, Shintaro, was greatly interested in an agreement with Russia).

Accordingly, a compromise on the Northern Territories — which to date has been impossible, with Japan demanding the return of all the Kurils — may take shape. The contents of a compromise will have to be hammered out in the coming months, but look for a softening of Japan’s public position on the islands in the aftermath of the Abe-Putin summit on the sidelines of the G8 meeting in Germany. (Asahi‘s Takahashi Kosuke surveyed options here.) Consider that MOFA’s press secretary said, earlier this month, “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to enrich the bilateral relationship; put a human face, if you like, on the bilateral relationship. But, beyond that, I cannot speculate on what actually Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is going to pick up as important issues to be discussed by the two nations.” This suggests to me that any Russian initiative is being handled in the Kantei, and that the prime minister may have a surprise in store for Heiligendamm.

So in Germany, expect a road map to an agreement, with a more firm announcement about an exchange of visits, with Putin visiting Tokyo and Abe visiting Moscow before the year is out, with Putin perhaps making the first visit. Maybe Abe will even get Putin to voice his heartfelt understanding of the plight of Japan’s abductees.

And then look for a complicated dance within and between Russia and Japan, as they figure out the contours of an agreement that will satisfy both.

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