Russian-Japanese Relations in the Shadow of the Ukraine-Russia War

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    After its military intervention against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Japan became one of the countries that imposed the most sanctions on Russia. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced that they found Russia’s attack on Ukraine “totally unacceptable in terms of national security” and announced the decision to expand the sanctions and stated that they acted in coordination with the United States (US) and the European Union (EU).

    Russia has announced that peace treaty negotiations will be suspended as Japan continues to expand its sanctions package. In a statement, the Russian Ministry of Defense regarding to Tokyo’s Ukraine policy, “Under these conditions, it is not possible to negotiate on the signing of a document that is important for both countries.”

    There was also a reaction from the Japanese Government to Russia, which announced that it would suspend the visa-free entry program that allows Japanese residents to periodically visit the islands off the coast of Hokkaido, which is controlled by Moscow but claimed by Tokyo. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Moscow’s actions were utterly unwarranted and absolutely unacceptable. Stating that they “strongly protested” Russia’s step, Kishida stated that Japan’s basic stance on resolving the Kuril Islands (Northern Territories) Problem and signing a peace agreement has not changed.

    Days after the peace talks between the two countries were halted, Russia held a military exercise in the Kuril Islands with more than 3.000 soldiers and hundreds of equipment. Thus, the Kuril Islands Question between Russia and Japan become the hot topic of agenda.

    Analyzing the Russian-Japanese relations, which became strained due to the sanctions in the shadow of the Ukraine-Russia War, to the Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies (ANKASAM), experts are of the opinion that Japan follows a US-oriented foreign policy towards Russia.

    ANKASAM International Relations Expert Dr. Sabir Askeroğlu: Japan wants to put pressure on Russia by expanding sanctions.

    sabir askeroglu

    Stating that Russia attaches importance to Japan due to its strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, ANKASAM International Relations Specialist Dr. Sabir Askeroğlu stated that Russian-Japanese relations were adversely affected by the expanding sanctions. Emphasizing that Japan followed parallel policies with the US policy against Russia, Askeroğlu underlined that the sanctions were used as a tool to influence Russian foreign policy.

    Noting that Russia did not take any serious steps in the peace negotiations regarding the Kuril Islands Problem, Askeroğlu said, “While Russia continues its peace talks with Japan; On the other hand, it is arming the region. By visiting the island, he exhibits behavior that Japan does not like.” he said.

    Referring to the reasons for Japan to expand the sanctions, Askeroğlu said, “Tokyo has changed tactics. The Kishida Government is trying to change Russia’s decisions through pressure rather than dialogue. I think this is the main reason why Japan has increased the number of sanctions against Russia recently.” said.

    ANKASAM Asia-Pacific Expert Cenk Tamer: Japan’s aim is to increase hostility towards Russia through sanctions.

    ANKASAM Asia-Pacific Expert Cenk Tamer, stated that Japan is seen as a part of the Western camp and therefore the Tokyo administration has expanded the sanctions against Russia. Tamer said that Japan’s aim is to take the QUAD countries composed of the USA, Australia and India, with side, through sanctions and it was to increase hostility towards Russia, but he could not persuade India, which stands out with its neutral stance. Tamer said, “Japan aims to transform QUAD into a structure like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The USA also uses QUAD as a front against Russia. While Tokto acts as an instrument here; Moscow, on the other hand, does not want this front formed against it to expand.” made its assessment.

    Emphasizing that Russia held military exercises on the islands after Japanese Prime Minister Kishida made unilateral statements about the Kuril Islands before the war in Ukraine, Tamer stated that the two countries faced each other again due to the sanctions. Tamer said, “Japan wants to buy these islands with money first and then make a peace treaty. Russia also does not accept this money offer for the islands it has won through war. Therefore, the ongoing island issue between the two countries does not seem to be resolved any time soon.” used the phrases.

    Hudson Institute Research Fellow Dr. Satoru Nagao: Negotiations with Japan provided an economic advantage for Russia.

    Expressing that the peace talks between the two countries, which were suspended between the two countries in the face of Japan’s sanctions against Russia, have been wanted to be stopped by the Moscow administration for a long time, Hudson Institute Research Assistant Dr. Satoru Nagao said that Russia continues to occupy the Kuril Islands (Northern Territories) and that Japan has the right to reclaim its lands.

    Emphasizing the increasing importance of the Kuril Islands, Nagao said, “Russia is hiding its nuclear ballistic missile submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk. These submarine-based nuclear missiles are critical to its nuclear deterrence against the United States. Russia wants to deploy air and anti-ship missiles in the Kuril Islands to protect these submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk. However, with the melting of the glaciers in the Arctic, maritime trade routes are opened. These roads are also located right next to the Kuril Islands. Therefore, the Kuril Islands are of strategic importance to protect the Maritime Line of Communication.” said.

    Pointing out that the negotiations are economically important for Russia, Nagao said, “Japan is a customer of Russia’s energy resources. This may provide an advantage in Russia’s energy price bargain with China. So the peace negotiations with Japan proved beneficial for Russia. However, in the current situation, the expansion of trade between Japan and Russia does not seem possible due to the sanctions.” made statements.

    Retired Ambassador Ahmet Bülent Meriç: Russia’s deployment of troops to the Kuril Islands may cause a major crisis.

    Retired Ambassador Ahmet Bülent Meriç stated that Japan’s foreign policy is completely in line with the USA, except for the issue of nuclear disarmament, and that the Tokyo administration cannot act outside this line and that the situation will affect relations with Russia.

    He said that Japan is an important strategic partner for the USA in the Asia-Pacific region and there is a threat perception from two countries in the region. Meriç said, “Japan’s first threat perception is North Korea’s intercontinental missile tests. The goal here is to hit the west coast of the USA. The second is the rising Chinese threat. Japan has territorial disputes with China over the Senkaku Islands and other islets stretching out to Taiwan. The most important point here is that China claims historical rights in the South China Sea and the Pacific region up to Guam. So, in the face of China’s expansion and arming of those islets in the South China Sea, there is also a threat to cut off Japan’s sea route to the West. Therefore, Tokyo has to apply the same sanctions regimes as the United States.” said.

    Emphasizing that Russia’s attempts to strengthen its weak position in the Asia-Pacific were inconclusive, Meriç claimed that Russia continues to deploy troops in the Kuril Islands and that this situation may cause a major crisis between the two countries.

    Retired Colonel Gökhan Sarı: Russian-Japanese relations will stabilize once the war in Ukraine is over.

    Retired Naval Colonel Gökhan Sarı, who stated that Japan’s policy is parallel to the policies of the West, said that these policies will continue to be carried out on the basis of the USA in the future.

    Underlining that the strained relations between the two countries due to the sanctions will not cause a major crisis, Sarı said, “I think it will stabilize after a certain point, including these announced sanctions in the near future.” said.

    Sarı said, “Japan, by taking advantage of this tension, will bring the need to have nuclear weapons again on the agenda due to its victimization in the Second World War. Because he states that he is under a threat in this sense. We see that discussions on this issue are also held in the domestic public.” made his comment. In addition, Sarı said that Russia’s landing of troops in the Kuril Islands will escalate the tension between the two countries; however, he added that no military intervention will be made against the islands.

    Journalist Hacer Sezgin: Japan seeks to turn the tension between Russia and Ukraine into an opportunity.

    Journalist Hacer Sezgin said that the relations between the two countries would become strained when Japan expands its sanctions against Russia, and that the Tokyo Government sees this crisis as an opportunity. Sezgin said, “Japan is in search of what I can get from here by using this tension. Because we can say that the main reason why Japan, which remained silent in the tensions in different regions and did not enter into crisis too much, extended its sanctions against Russia by disrupting its neutrality, stems from the Kuril Islands Problem.” made the assessment.

    Sezgin, who agrees with other experts about Japan’s foreign policy steps, said, “Japan is following the USA. Just as the Washington administration acts on a global scale, Tokyo is positioned in the same line. After the Russo-Ukrainian War, a step back can be taken again. Because the suspension of peace talks is not a good thing for Japan either. Russia also stopped it for a reaction, but we can predict that the relations between the two countries will revive.”