Japan and the Ukraine Crisis

Kawatō Akio [Profile]

[2014.04.22] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

The volatile situation in Ukraine has forced itself onto the agenda for US President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Japan. Former diplomat Kawatō Akio gives his views on how Japan should respond to Russia’s actions and what it should aim to achieve in the summit meeting.

A Key Moment for Russia and International Society

It has been more than 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet empire, but the countries in Russia’s periphery remain unstable, as exemplified by the current Ukraine crisis. This is a critical juncture. The outcome could either set Russia definitively on course to decline or assist President Vladimir Putin’s design to resurrect the Soviet Union.

Ukraine is the second-largest country of the former Soviet Union, with a population of over 40 million, including a large minority of native Russian speakers. As well as being a major regional agricultural and industrial center, it continues to be a key source of military hardware for the Russian Armed Forces. The SS-18 missiles that have served as the mainstay of Russia’s nuclear capability are from Ukraine, as are Antonov heavy cargo aircraft and half of the air-to-air missiles on Russian fighter planes. For the Russian military, the idea that the West might cut off its access to manufacturing bases in the east and south of Ukraine is a nightmare scenario.

Russia has thus proposed a federal system of government for Ukraine—though what it is calling for is actually more like a confederation of states. This would provide a high degree of regional autonomy for the east and south, which Russia could then draw into its sphere of influence. The adoption of a federal system has been a topic in the four-party talks among Ukraine, Russia, the European Union, and the United States, but it will not be easy for the parties to reach a settlement, and the Ukrainian presidential election scheduled for May 25 may end up being postponed. Meanwhile, pro-Russian forces have seized government buildings in eastern Ukrainian cities and the situation remains volatile. These are the circumstances under which President Barack Obama will begin his visit to Japan on April 23. How should Japan deal with the Ukraine question?

Prepare for Deterioration in US-Russian Ties

The crisis is an unwelcome distraction for Japan, which is preoccupied by its sparring with China. The developments in Ukraine are grabbing Washington’s attention, and they also are forcing Japan to retreat from the closer ties with Russia that it has been cultivating as a counterweight to China. Now that matters have come to this pass, Tokyo has no option other than to side with the West and let its ties with Moscow stagnate. Over the past year Prime Minister Abe Shinzō has exerted great effort to develop a warm relationship with President Putin, but that will have to go in the cooler for a while. Western sanctions have left Russia isolated, with China sitting on the fence between it and the West, and so Russia is actually in a weak position vis-à-vis Japan, but even so, it may well take aggressive moves, such as stepped-up violations of Japanese airspace by its fighter jets—while at the same time seeking to draw Japan over to its side by offering the carrot of a resolution to the dispute over the Northern Territories (islands east of Hokkaidō that were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II). Putin is scheduled to visit Japan this autumn; whether the trip takes place will depend on the course of this shrewd maneuvering. Japan should not be hasty in deciding whether to postpone the invitation or go ahead as planned; instead it should hold on to this decision as a diplomatic card.

Some in Japan believe it would be dangerous to impose sanctions on a major power like Russia, but doing so as one among many Western countries is safe enough. Japan imposed numerous sanctions when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and during the suppression of Poland’s Solidarity movement in 1981. In any case, the repertory of sanctions that Japan can apply against Russia is quite limited.

There are also not many sanctions that other Western countries can slap on Russia with impunity. Their financial markets and infrastructure are essential for Russian businesses, but they cannot easily use these as a lever, because if Russian money stops flowing into Western Europe, financial institutions there will suffer. And the countries of Western Europe will surely not go so far as to halt oil and natural gas imports from Russia.

Ultimately, the least problematic and most effective measure to take against Russia would be to force a slump in global oil and natural gas prices. Saudi Arabia’s decision to massively increase oil production in 1985 and the ensuing fall in the price of oil to a third of its former level were what triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Presently the price of crude oil is around $110 a barrel; pushing this down even just to about $80 (a level that would not hinder US shale oil production) would put a severe pinch on Russia’s finances, drive down the ruble, and aggravate inflation, thereby fostering social unrest. For Saudi Arabia, which in its rivalry with Iran is seeking the downfall of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, this is an excellent opportunity to put a tight squeeze on Russia, which has been aiding Assad. And in Iraq, where Iranian Shiite power is growing, it is quite plausible to imagine a scenario in which the Kurds of the northern oil-producing regions hold a referendum, declare independence, and then greatly increase oil production.

It remains unclear how long the ties between Russia and the West will remain on ice. Following the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, it was only six months before the United States and Russia announced that they had “reset” their relationship. This time too, if China takes unilateral action around the Senkaku Islands or in the South China Sea, the United States is likely to move quickly to reconcile with Moscow. However, if the bad blood lingers, Japan will need to prepare itself for both Russian and North Korean actions in the north and Chinese actions in the south. In this case the security environment will be considerably worse than during the Cold War, when only the north required defense, and if the United States is forced to expand its troop presence in Europe, a huge boost in the military capability of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces will be required to fill the gap. The implications of the new age of international lawlessness ushered in by Russian actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine should also be considered. Japan must strengthen its defense of the Senkaku Islands and work at improving the economy and public welfare of Okinawa and the other islands south of Kyūshū to prevent maneuvering by China or other foreign powers to, for example, foment a movement for a referendum on local independence.

In terms of Japan’s energy supplies, if Europe limits its imports of oil and natural gas from Russia, we can expect to see soaring prices for oil and liquefied natural gas from the Middle East and other regions. Meanwhile, it will take considerable time before the necessary infrastructure and legal framework are in place for large-scale exports of shale gas and oil from the United States. Japan will need to restart a minimum number of nuclear plants, having first made full safety checks of the plants and ensured adequate accident response systems are in place. At the same time, it must also plan for the future through such measures as phasing out current-model reactors over the next 20 years, developing thorium reactors, and making use of coal power.

Japan’s Goals for the Abe-Obama Summit

There is almost no time left before President Obama’s April 23 arrival in Tokyo. The best approach for Japan to take at the upcoming summit is to clarify that it will make a full-scale contribution to financial support for Ukraine through the International Monetary Fund. Having shared its views with the United States regarding the problem, it would be best for Japan to wait for the results of discussions within the Group of Seven before imposing specific sanctions on Russia.

Determining how to share responsibility with the United States for maintaining prosperity and stability in East Asia is far more important for Japan than becoming more directly involved in the Ukraine crisis. Reaching agreement with the United States on this will promote closer ties between the two countries, which in turn will strengthen the Western position vis-à-vis Ukraine. The same may be said with regard to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The issue for the world now is how to maintain global stability at a time when the United States is still getting over the war in Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis and is reluctant to undertake external interventions. The United States has been seeking to maintain the momentum of democratic movements in the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, and other regions by supporting them mainly through nongovernmental organizations. This has led not only to turmoil but also to feelings of disappointment and wariness toward the United States, as seen in the Ukraine crisis and the Arab Spring. The proper route to a stable world is the creation of middle classes through industrial development as a base for the cultivation of democracy. If Japan and the West were to set forth something like a new Marshall Plan for this purpose and get the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) to participate as donors, it could lead to a new and healthier global atmosphere.

Japan and the United States should make a joint statement during Obama’s visit that they are opposed to attempts to change the current international order through force. That would cover Russian intervention in Ukraine, unilateral Chinese actions around the Senkaku Islands and in the South China Sea, and China’s curious campaign to convince the United States that Japan is seeking to overturn the postwar status quo. This kind of statement would assist in correcting the misconception among some Americans that the Abe administration is trying to challenge the postwar international order.

When international problems like the Ukraine crisis occur, rather than taking a passive stance as it has to date, Japan should consider how to use the opportunity to improve its own position.

(Originally written in Japanese on April 15, 2014. Title photo: Pro-Russian citizens block Ukrainian Army combat vehicles and soldiers on April 16, 2014, in Donetsk Oblast, eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian forces continue to hold government buildings. Photo by Sergei Grits/AP Photo/Aflo.)

UPDATE: At the Japan-US summit, held on April 24, Prime Minister Abe and President Obama stated that the use of force to alter the status quo in Ukraine was unacceptable and that they would cooperate on this matter with other countries in the G7. Abe also said that he would continue to support stability in the Ukraine, including through the $1.5 billion of economic aid pledged on March 24.—Ed. (Update added on April 25, 2014)

  • [2014.04.22]

Former deputy chief of mission at the Embassy of Japan in Moscow and Japanese Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Author of the “Japan and World Trends” website. Born in 1947. Graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1970 and joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Later studied at Harvard University and Moscow State University. Has been a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo, Waseda University, and Moscow State University and senior fellow at the Tokyo Foundation. His works include Land of Legend . . . Land of Dreams, a novel depicting the fate of a liberal-minded Russian journalist turned singer-songwriter against the background of the Soviet Union's fall. It was first published in Russian in 2001.

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  • M. Downing Roberts

    While the analysis in Kawatō’s article explores the situation in the Ukraine to a certain extent, it fails to account for several dimensions which are important for Japan.

    First, Kawatō understates the difficulty of the position that Obama has forced upon the Abe government. Kawatō proposes that Japan “make a full-scale contribution to financial support for Ukraine through the International Monetary Fund”. Now, let us ignore, for a moment, how Japan can make this commitment when Abenomics is demonstrably failing and the G-20 is calling for an end to the Bank of Japan program of monetary easing. Let us ignore that and ask what, exactly, Japan is being called upon to support in the Ukraine. The unfortunate reality is that the US has spent over five billion dollars to sponsor a coup d’état in Kiev, overthrowing the democratically-elected president Yanukovych by force, and replacing him with the pro-Western oligarch Yatsenyuk. Yatsenyuk has been supported by the neo-Nazi groups Svoboda and Right Sector. The Yatsenyuk regime is therefore illegitimate in the eyes of the Southern and the Eastern Ukraine. It is not that Russia is forcing their hands in the current crisis, rather, it is simply that the South and East Ukraine do not wish to be ruled by the illegitimate and violent neo-Nazi coup in Kiev. This was the reason for the Crimean referendum. This is why the overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted for secession, and this is why the whole Eastern Ukraine now wishes to follow them. At present the national economy is a ruin and the Ukraine is in a state of chaos, with people being aggressed and killed by neo-Nazi “Banderovtsy”. This is why they want to break with Kiev. A realistic analysis of the situation on the ground shows that Putin is not responsible for this crisis. So, is Japan to make “a full-scale contribution” to help support a neo-Nazi coup, in a country that is descending into a state of civil war?

    Second, it is incorrect to say that Russia is “actually in a weak position vis-à-vis Japan”. In fact, the opposite is true. Japan is the world’s largest importer of liquefied natural gas (LNG), and Russia one of the largest producers. Russia has by far the largest proven reserve of natural gas in the world. Needless to say, Japan is almost completely dependent on foreign sources of oil and gas, vulnerable to market fluctuations, and has been steadily trying to improve relations with Russia to help meet its energy needs. Towards this end, Japanese companies have a 30% stake in the Sakhalin-I oil and gas project, and a 22.5% stake in Sakhalin-II. From what position, then, would Japan join in sanctions against Russia, and at what cost to Japanese interests? A complete analysis of this crisis should account for these costs as well.

    Kawatō also suggests that Europe has the option to limit its imports of oil and gas from Russia. In fact, Europe relies heavily on Russian energy — the EU is Russian Gazprom’s largest client, consuming 61% of its overall exports. Russia alone provides 38% of Germany’s gas, 35% of all oil imports, and 25%. Business analysts in Europe point out that there are no suitable alternatives in sight. The infrastructure doesn’t exist. So, what leverage does Europe really have in this situation?

    Regarding a scenario in which Saudi Arabia increases production to harm Russia, Kawatō’s analysis falls short here as well. Putin has already publicly addressed this possibility, pointing out that a drop in the price of oil to USD 85 will not affect Russia, but it will harm both Saudi Arabia and the US, whose shale production is very costly and therefore dependent upon high market prices to attract investment capital. Lastly, next month, Russia will sign a landmark energy agreement with China. If Europe and/or Japan wish to commit energy suicide, the Chinese will happily consume everything they don’t buy. Again, how would Japanese support for escalating sanctions help Japanese interests?

    Basically, the bottom line is that Russia holds most of the cards in this crisis, and the Obama administration has decided to throw both the EU and Japan under the bus to meet its own objectives. In effect, the US is forcing its vassal states in Europe and East Asia to fall into line, fully against their own domestic interests. Moreover, the primary goal of US policy at this time is clearly to disrupt economic integration between Asia and Europe — this is the geopolitical significance of the Ukraine crisis.

    So, indeed, Japan should “consider how to use the opportunity to improve its own position”. Japan might also consider how to gain some autonomy from the US policies that have recklessly compromised its future security.

  • John

    It is quite sad to keep reading how Japan needs to follow and obey the US in anything and everything. More serenely, however, I have to ask: is there any tendency or possibility that Okinawans and residents of the southern islands could be tempted by China? Do such feelings exist in that area as this article suggests?

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