Prospects for Japan-Russia Relations After Putin’s Return to Power


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov flew to Tokyo to attend a January 28 meeting with Japan’s minister for foreign affairs, Gemba Kōichirō, amid the rising expectation that Vladimir Putin will return to power. Although the meeting yielded no substantive progress on the focal issue of the Northern Territories, it helped dispel the acrimony hovering over Japan-Russia relations for the past two or three years, basically resetting the bilateral relationship in advance of Prime Minister Putin’s return to the presidency. In formulating its strategy for dealing with Putin, Japan will need to adopt a medium- to long-term perspective.

Lavrov’s Soft Diplomacy

Relations between Japan and Russia began to deteriorate around July 2009, toward the end of the Liberal Democratic Party’s reign, and reached a low point in the early days of the first Democratic Party of Japan administration, when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid a visit to the island of Kunashiri on November 1, 2010. Nevertheless, the two countries held a bilateral summit meeting later that same month, on the 13th, during the APEC summit in Yokohama, and the tensions did at least seem to bottom out. Subsequently, though, no notable improvement was seen in Japan-Russian relations.

The key point about the January ministerial meeting, according to a senior official in Japan’s foreign ministry, was that neither side “picked at the scab.” As summarized on the website of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, both ministers agreed that “while the two countries’ standpoints differ considerably, based on the growing atmosphere of mutual trust the issue will not be shelved, and that debate toward resolving the issue will continue in a calm environment based on the principles of law and justice and the two countries’ various agreements and documents thus far.” The two sides did not step further into the controversy, however, and maintained a posture of self-restraint throughout. Foreign Minister Lavrov, once characterized by former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as a natural-born debater who won’t shy away from an argument, is known among Japanese diplomatic personnel for his seemingly arrogant and provocative comments and behavior. He projected a different persona, however, at the joint press conference following ministerial summit in late January.

He carefully explained the cooperative agreements reached by the two countries, touching lightly on the issue of the Northern Territories only at the end of his remarks, which were mild in tone. He expressed hope that a mutually acceptable means of resolving the issue could be found, indicated an intention to approach the matter dispassionately, and said efforts would be made to avoid provocative statements.

The mere fact that Lavrov has lasted for more than seven years as Russia’s foreign minister testifies to his diplomatic finesse and remarkable eloquence. Near the end of the press conference, he abruptly faced forward and leaned toward the microphone to say: “Let me reiterate that while [we seek resumption of] the six-party talks, Russia also insists that the issue of abductees must be resolved. We support Japan’s position entirely.”

The high-level foreign ministry official with whom I was sitting was visibly astonished. “That’s the first time Lavrov has said anything like that about the issue of abductees,” he said. “It shows he’s trying to improve his image with the Japanese public. That was definitely done for Putin’s benefit.”

Putin’s Third Turn at Power: Expectations and Misgivings

Movements are now underway in Russia that point in the direction of Putin’s return to power and the restoration of Russia’s imperial power, such as the effort to bring the Northern Territories more closely into the Russian cultural orbit and the holding of the APEC summit in Vladivostok this September. This shows that the country is trying to shift away from its Medvedev-era policy vis-à-vis Japan. Russia shares one of the world’s longest borders with China, and the Japan card is an effective instrument for managing relations with the superpower next door.

This being Russia’s strategic agenda, what sort of game plan can Japan devise? In pondering this question, there are two key points to consider.

First, the term of office for the Russian presidency has been extended from four to six years. If we assume that a president’s first year is given over to preparatory arrangements following the change of government, and that the final year is either a lame duck period or devoted to seeking reelection, then the allotted time for confronting challenges has been expanded from two years to four years—a major difference. What this means, according to a source at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is that the return of President Putin, the Russian politician who knows Japan best, would provide Japan with an excellent opportunity. On the other hand, if Japan fails to establish a relationship of trust with Putin’s third government, unhealthy relations with Russia could be extended for as long as twelve years.

The second point is that there is little likelihood that Putin, if reelected(*1), could once again demonstrate the preeminent leadership that characterized his first two administrations, which lasted from 2000 to 2008. A high-ranking Ministry of Foreign Affairs official noted that Putin’s power was derived from Russia’s expanding influence at the time, fueled by the soaring value of its natural resources. That market has already peaked, so Putin will not be able to exercise the degree of power he had during his previous administrations.

Indeed, in the December lower-house election, the ruling United Russia Party lost a considerable number of seats, weakening its governing base. Although no one is predicting that Putin will lose the presidential election in March, the first round of voting could be inconclusive, thus requiring a second round. The election is likely to gauge the strength or weakness at the base of the new Putin administration.

Rival Approaches to Russia

It will be no simple matter for Japan to find the right approach for dealing with Russia.

In the Japanese press, which has come to serve as a lobby of sorts, certain continuing themes are heard in discussions of the government’s Russia policy. The media’s view is that the struggle between Japan and Russia revolves around two competing scenarios: the simultaneous return of all four island territories, or the return of only two islands. The media is focusing on what common ground Japan might find to resolve the Northern Territories issue, whether some sort of “quiet dialogue” could resolve the dispute, and also whether it would be better to accept a “two islands plus” compromise. One factor at work here is that an anti-foreign ministry faction, whose members include former Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Suzuki Muneo and former Ministry of Foreign Affairs senior analyst Satō Masaru, is asserting its views on these issues.

There are complicated personal connections involved as well, foremost among them those between Minister for Foreign Affairs Gemba and his predecessor Maehara Seiji, who is the current chairman of the Democratic Party of Japan Policy Research Council. The two were classmates at the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management. Both have begun to entertain hopes of attaining the office of prime minister, and they are now engaged in a growing rivalry concerning relations with Russia. The fact that Foreign Minister Lavrov followed up his ministerial meeting by meeting separately both with former Prime Minister Mori Yoshirō, who is well acquainted with Prime Minister Putin, and with former Foreign Minister Maehara, suggests that Lavrov is looking ahead to Russia’s relations with Japan after Putin is restored to power.

The advent of a third Putin administration may offer Japan new opportunities, but Russia will still be Russia. Japan must proceed with extreme caution. The unfortunate history regarding the Northern Territories has been dictated not only by stiff-necked anti-Soviet hardliners but also by people who have been excessively optimistic—like over-eager diners who have their utensils at the ready after the first whiff of a meal that is not yet ready to eat. (February 3, 2012)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ Putin has indeed returned to the post of president after winning the March 4, 2012, presidential election in Russia.—Ed.

diplomacy Russia APEC Ministry of Foreign Affairs Suzuki Yoshikatsu Jiji Press Japan-Russia Putin Northern Territories Lavrov Medvedev Vladivostok Gemba Maehara Mori