Sino-Russian Relations and the Failure of Russo-Japanese Relations

As Sino-Russian relations drew closer after Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, Russo-Japanese relations also seemed to be poised for an upward trajectory. Given the troubled state of Sino-Japanese relations over this period and the far-reaching impact of the Ukraine crisis from March 2014, the upbeat mood of Russo-Japanese relations or, more specifically, the “Vladimir-Shinzo” personal bond most recently manifested when they met in late September 2015 at the United Nations, seemingly defied explanation. In the next two months, however, Moscow and Tokyo indefinitely postponed Putin’s visit to Japan, and recriminations echoed from both sides. What should one make of the Japanese excitement about Putin over a period of more than two and a half years, not altogether subsiding at the end of 2015? Did the upsurge in Sino-Russian relations leave little room for the overtures of Japan to succeed? Was failure nearly inevitable due to Putin’s cultivation of Russian nationalism, leaving his negotiators intransigent over the disputed southern Kuril Islands?1 This article concentrates on the Russian side in the relationship between Moscow and Tokyo and reflects on the impact of Russia’s relationship with China.


One can look elsewhere for the buildup in Russo-Japanese relations and the zigzag effect of the Ukraine crisis.2 Here, I concentrate on the breakdown visible in the second half of 2015. This includes Moscow announcing a military buildup at its Kuril base along with four Arctic bases3 (later adding construction of a second Kuril base). Already, Japanese should have concluded from Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev’s August visit to the islands and the visits of cabinet ministers in short succession that Russia’s position had hardened to the point of disdain for the old framework of negotiating by avoiding words or actions that provoked the other side. Indeed, insults directed toward Japan in the wake of Japanese protests about those actions suggested a level of contempt not seen since the beginning of bilateral negotiations in search of common ground that would lead to both a peace treaty and an agreement on their territorial dispute. Russian rhetoric tips us off that behind the facade of Japanese optimism a darker reality has been gathering force.


The Downturn in Japanese-Russian Relations

Russo-Japanese relations had plunged into stagnation in 2010 and 2011 as President Dmitry Medvedev ostentatiously visited the Kuril Islands and enhanced Russian plans for developing both economic profile and military capabilities to gain favor with China and to demonstrate that Japanese agitation and legislation attempting to force Moscow’s hand to return all four of the disputed islands would go nowhere. Indeed, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov stated at the 2011 Shangri-La Dialogue that there was no territorial question with Japan and that Russia could have perfectly good relations with it without a peace treaty, i.e., the status quo could simply endure indefinitely.4 Yet, Putin’s return to the top post and overtures to Abe Shinzo for a time left this downturn in the shadows, as seen in Japanese thinking more than Russian media coverage. It was more of a shock to Japan than to Russia when the upbeat atmosphere of 2012 to 2015 reverted to the preceding tone.


Japan suffers from the misconception that Moscow might want to negotiate seriously on the islands because Putin had suggested a “hikiwake,” a judo term for a compromise.5 Yet, Japanese politicians also cannot resist the recurring temptation to denounce Russian occupation of the islands as illegal. This only stiffens Russian resolve to impose on Japan the tired old condition that it first acknowledges the results of World War II if it wants Moscow to negotiate on the basis of Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 offer of two of the islands.6 A standoff repeatedly follows. Moreover, Japanese governments apparently overestimate Russia’s perception of its economic need for an agreement, even if Putin again recently stated that despite the huge Russo-Chinese economic relationship, Russia wants to diversify its economic relations with Japan, South Korea, and other countries.7 Despite 40 years of analysts on all sides writing about the supposedly natural complementarity of the Russian and Japanese economies, their actual economic ties remain sadly underdeveloped and their energy ties quite limited. This suggests that the complementarity argument is quite misconceived. Finally, The Asan Forum’s recent review of Japanese media outlined four abiding misconceptions that pervade Japanese writing about Russia and Sino-Russian relations, which reflect Japan’s own “magical thinking” about Russia.


How do the Japanese boost their optimism that they have promising opportunities in relations with Russia and regional diplomacy? One mechanism is to minimize linkages between Russian policy in the West and the East. Another has been to find internal reasons why Russia will have to change course. A third is to stress its need for Japan in the course of a balance of power strategy, showcased in writings that downplay Sino-Russian relations.8 Willful ignorance of Russian realities and wistful hopes for Putin’s personal interest in overcoming all obstacles have driven Japanese officials and some media to a rosy view.


In a recent article, Valery Kistanov forcefully demonstrated just how off the mark these Japanese perceptions are.

Japanese analysts believe that Russia’s current economic difficulties due to Western sanctions and falling oil prices could help settle the territorial dispute in Japan’s favor. The essence of this strategy was put forth by Yomiuri Shimbun in a September 30, 2015 editorial, which said, in part: “The recent hardline stance of the Russian Foreign Ministry on the territorial issue is intolerable. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that Japan should recognize the reality of postwar history. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov even said that the northern territories were lawfully transferred to his country as a result of World War II. Russia, in diplomatic documents exchanged with Japan, has recognized the existence of the dispute concerning the possession of the four northern islands. As Russian officials, including Lavrov, have adopted stances that apparently ignore past bilateral negotiations, it will be important for Japan to directly approach Putin, who has tremendous political power.” In conclusion, the article says that Japan needs to work out a comprehensive diplomatic strategy toward Russia by thoroughly considering what things will be like two to three years from now, while Putin and Abe remain in power. Japan hopes that these two charismatic leaders, who are trusted by the public in their countries, will resolve the issue of the disputed islands in Japan’s favor. But Japan is unlikely to get what it wants, especially in the seventieth year since the end of World War II, as a result of which Russia became the legal owner of the southern Kuril Islands.9


From August to October 2015, almost every week featured a Russian denunciation of Japan’s words in regard to the disputed islands. Indeed, its foreign ministry infuriated Tokyo by saying that the Kuril Islands problem does not exist,10 reverting to the words often used by Andrei Gromyko, when Japanese-Soviet relations were at their nadir. An example of the vituperation coming from Moscow was when Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, a known provocateur, stated that if the Japanese government were real men they would follow tradition and commit ritual suicide rather than simply protesting Medvedev’s visit to the islands.11 Clearly, high-ranking officials believe they have license to insult Japan publicly and crudely with impunity. Meanwhile, Russian aerial overflights and probes of Japan’s defenses continue without apparent letup;12 Japan’s scrambling of its jets to meet those probes has reached Cold War levels, increasing 700 percent since 2005.13


The impression left is that Russia sees Japan in the global context as a non-independent actor subservient to Washington, to which it is not worthwhile to make serious concessions.14 Given Japan’s excuse that it had to impose sanctions after the aggression in Crimea and again in response to Russia’s military interference in Eastern Ukraine, not to be totally out of step with its ally and others in the Group of 7 (G7)—as if Tokyo has to yield to their pressure even if it does so reluctantly—Russia may be even more scornful of Japan’s claim to foreign policy independence. There is reason to believe that Japan, inadvertently, set itself up for further insults and psychological pressure. Reportedly, Abe’s government sent Putin a message to the effect that it had already given a detailed explanation about Putin’s possible visit to Japan to US President Barack Obama. Abe may have wanted to display his determination to invite Putin, but Putin may have taken this as a sign that Tokyo always checks first with Washington before acting. Therefore, “Russia does not need to deal with Japan on an equal footing.”15 Alternatively, this may convince Putin that Japan will not yield on sanctions unless Washington approves; so it is pointless for him to deal with Japan on this issue.


That leaves Moscow with the position that it is not willing to negotiate on the islands if sanctions remain in place, something Tokyo did not appear to understand until more than a year after sanctions were imposed. Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, who oversees Russia’s Asian policies, said as much in the fall of 2015.16 Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the State Duma and a close aide to Putin, has stated that “Japan’s imposition of sanctions on Russia has become an obstacle to bilateral relations,” suggesting that part of Moscow’s price for normalization would be the removal of Japanese sanctions due to its aggression in Ukraine.17 It is not just removal of the sanctions that is required. Putin reportedly warned Abe that if he comes to Japan, he must have concrete economic results to show for it.18 At the Putin-Abe meetings, Putin pointedly referred to declining Russo-Japanese trade,19 expressing his confidence that both states have a high potential for economic cooperation on a large number of joint projects that supposedly back up this potential. Acting on this potential is demanded as a precondition.


Russians have tended to view Abe as struggling against forces of resistance in Tokyo, just as Japanese are obsessed with the notion that no matter how little support can be found in Russia for a negotiated agreement, Putin is prepared to act on his own. During the recent diplomacy, Russian analysts assessed various outcomes as showing that Abe’s office triumphed over the “diehard” anti-Russian faction in the Foreign Ministry, dialogue has been restored (a Russian desire) at the deputy prime minister level, and the meeting of the trade and economic intergovernmental commission with the presence of 10 major Japanese industrialists showed that gradually “in defiance of sanctions economic interests are getting the upper hand over politics.”20 Andrei Fesyun went so far as to say that this showed that the territorial issue is becoming purely an ideological one and that Moscow has prevailed in relaunching the discussion on more important issues, e.g., Japanese trade and investment in Russia.21 For a time, at least, Russian analysts, and presumably the Russian government, believed that it prevailed over Japan, which needs these talks more than it does. Thus, agreeing to more talks, Russians increasingly were asserting that they were really not about a deal on territory, but about economic relations or Japan’s isolation and search for a new partner.22 Japan’s prolonged pursuit of Putin, even when Russian statements offered scant reason for optimism, only reinforced Russian views that Japan is significantly isolated regionally and needed talks more than Russia did. Yet, as Japan failed to remove sanctions and is drawing ever closer to the United States, Russia has dropped even this rationale and over the late summer and early fall of 2015 resorted to more hardline tactics toward Japan.


The Sino-Russian-US Triangle and Japan

Even before the Ukraine crisis, Putin’s foreign policy prioritized a “pivot to the East,” heavily centered on China, and a more negative stance toward the United States. While Putin’s encouragement of Japan seemed to be an anomaly, it was a marginal factor that gave Russians a reason to proclaim multipolarity as the objective in Asia and to insist that it was not relying excessively on China. Yet, there was even more insistence that Russia is not looking to Japan to balance China; only Japan has balancing China in mind. Actually, Moscow has seized the atmosphere of Japanese anxieties over Sino-Russian relations to increase the pressure on Tokyo. From Russia’s actions—e.g., Russo-Chinese naval maneuvers that featured simulated amphibious landings and Putin’s prominent presence at President Xi Jinping’s anti-Japan seventieth anniversary celebration of the end of World War II—it should have been clear that no realistic prospect for normalizing Russo-Japanese relations exists.23 Putin’s agreement with Xi to link in one grand conception of the past anti-fascist struggle of the battles against the Japanese and the Nazis reveals his rejection of certain Japanese attempts to find common ground in historical memory for better ties.


The Japanese have failed to drive a wedge between Moscow and Beijing—despite often setting aside Russian signals of contempt to sustain their diplomatic campaign to revive the rapprochement process and Putin’s visit. Instead, Japan resumed discussions about trade in “Green Corridor” pharmaceuticals, farming, and energy projects, with Russia.24 This was a sign Japanese policy makers still believe they can achieve normalization of ties with Russia, including not only the return of some or all of the four islands, but also that this could lead to Japan becoming the broker for reintegration of Russia and the West—the illusion that Japan has some sort of clout to turn Russia away from China and back to the West.


In contrast, Russia has apparently had more success in driving a wedge between Tokyo and Washington. Many have suspected that Russia was thinking of a deal that would be at the price of recognizing Russia’s historic interests in and annexation of the Crimea. Russian remarks suggest that it had been willing until recently to keep Abe’s hopes for an agreement alive in order to split Japan, the United States, and the European Union (EU) on the sanctions issue. Any unilateral Japanese softening of its sanctions (which are already milder than those of Europe) would fragment the united Western front on the issue. It would allow for the invidious precedent of turning a blind eye to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in general and, arguably, open up the Senkaku Islands to more assertive Chinese threats.


Japan’s excessive pursuit of Russia may have reinforced China’s sense that pressure works against Japan, given both countries’ steadily expanding number of anti-Japanese military probes.25 That pursuit also encourages China to believe it can pressure Russia, as apparently has occurred, to desist from recent normalization efforts with Japan lest they antagonize a China that Russia cannot afford to irritate. If Russia thinks it can intimidate Japan, China will think it can do so, too, and that it can pressure Russia.


This latest effort at normalization has apparently failed largely for two reasons. First, it became a casualty of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing international reaction to that aggression.26 Second, the reaction helped to intensify the Sino-Russian partnership and driven Russia to ever-greater dependence on China, which comes at the expense of rapprochement with Japan. Arguably, Moscow has gained little but increased dependence on China, which is apparently less able or willing than before to give Russia significant material benefits.27 Consequently, Russia, not Japan, is the big loser here for its pivot to Asia turns out to be merely a not so successful pivot to China with enhanced economic-political dependence on China, which is not inclined to grant Russia economic benefits.


Under these circumstances, it is inconceivable that China will bless a Russo-Japanese normalization process that frees Japan to adopt an even stronger “anti-Chinese” profile in Asia. Since China, not Japan, remains Russia’s priority partner in Asia and Beijing intends to keep things that way, any attempted Russo-Japanese rapprochement will inevitably collide with China’s resistance. Indeed, while Moscow and Beijing have long since resolved their border issues, neither of them has resolved its respective issues with Japan. “Thus, they have shared the same adversary for more than 15 years.”28 Whereas in the 1990s, the crux of Russo-Chinese relations was Moscow’s effort, expressed by Boris Yeltsin, to instrumentalize China in its relations with the United States—and that anti-Americanism remains as the central point of their relationship—today, as Lavrov’s quote illustrates, Moscow increasingly depends greatly on China.29 And as Moscow slips into ever-greater economic-political dependence on Beijing, its scope for affecting a rapprochement with Japan, that is now overtly challenging China, especially on the basis of shared Russo-Japanese concerns about China, narrows correspondingly.


Medvedev and President Hu Jintao signed a September 2010 agreement denouncing any effort by Japan to revise the territorial outcome of World War II in Asia, formally aligning Moscow with Beijing’s demand for the Japanese-held Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands and evincing a clear preference for China as Russia’s main Asian partner. Furthermore, both sides simultaneously proposed a new multipolar blueprint for Asian security that was explicitly aimed at Japan and the US alliance system in Asia. In June 2011, they declared that the world is steadily evolving toward multipolarity, and that they would comprehensively deepen their partnership as a factor for peace in the Asia-Pacific region, promoting multilateral mechanisms throughout Asia.30 Moscow’s diplomats then began pushing these ideas to Asian audiences.31 Russia sought India’s assent to this formulation and covertly solicited Japan’s endorsement even as it publicly humiliated Japan over the islands, a sure sign of its endemic desire to play both sides against the middle and of its fundamentally anti-liberal and anti-American orientation.32


This Sino-Russian proposal is allegedly based on “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, and cooperation,” which is essentially the Chinese formula for its “New Security Concept,” and this formulation suggests that Russia has bought into that concept, a noteworthy trend with potentially profound repercussions beyond Russo-Japanese relations. According to this formulation, all states would respect each other’s sovereignty (no criticism of their domestic politics), integrity (support for Russian and Chinese postures on outstanding territorial issues), non-alliance principles, equal and transparent security frameworks, and equal and indivisible security.33 Since the vagueness of the proposal benefits only Russia and China and squarely denounces the US alliance system in Asia, while greatly resembling Moscow’s European Security Treaty from 2009 to 2010, it reveals just how shallow Russia’s concept of Asian multipolarity is.34


By 2012, Sino-Russian mutual relations and perceptions were of critical importance in shaping Russia’s approach to Japan. Indeed, from 1992 when Moscow prioritized China over Japan in its Asian strategy and broke off negotiations with Japan on the islands, it was clear that Moscow and Beijing preferred to partner with each other than with Tokyo, a choice driven not only by convergent geopolitical interests but also by the already growing anti-Americanism and anti-liberalism in both countries.35 Russo-Japanese relations can be understood as a function of the Sino-Russian vector in what may be considered a regional triangle. Japan’s quest for rapprochement clearly involved the hope that common concern about China’s growing power and assertiveness might bring Russia closer to it as would a need for Japanese investment, and that this rapprochement would facilitate meaningful attenuation of the Sino-Russian partnership’s inherently anti-Japanese tendencies.36 This remained to be the hope but is now shown to be an illusion.


The Military Dimension of Russo-Chinese Relations and Japan

Russian elites clearly believe Japan can be intimidated and that intimidation will duly lead to more concessions, hence the increasing number of overflights from 2010, well before the war against Ukraine.37 During 2014 and 2015, these overflights, naval probes, and references to Russian nuclear threats have increased greatly in Russia’s efforts to unnerve and threaten Japan.38 As commentators observe, China’s naval strategy is moving from a sea denial strategy against the United States and Japan that entails denying the use of the Yellow and East China Seas to foreign offensive strike platforms to a strategy aiming beyond the first island chain to a second island chain strategy where China can project power that places Japan behind Chinese nautical lines.39 Russia’s continuing military transfers to China are vital to upgrading China’s capability for realizing this strategy. As one recent analysis of Moscow’s naval transfers to China observes:

The kinds of weapons that Russia was providing were geared much more toward fighting a maritime conflict with the West than a future land campaign against Russia. In fact, Moscow hoped that the buildup of China’s maritime forces might intensify the growing competition between China and the United States in the Western Pacific, leaving the two strategically focused more on each other and away from Russia.40


In the naval sphere alone, Russian help has been critical in improving Chinese ship design, cruise and ballistic anti-ship and anti-air missiles, the ability to detect and track moving ships and airplanes at sea and strike them from a distance, and the naval air defense umbrella to prevent both the US and Japanese fleets from operating in the Western Pacific.41 Cooperation is increasing due to the intensification of Sino-Russian relations and Russian economic distress. Russia is reportedly developing a naval version of the S-400 air defense system that will be sold to China (it has been announced that China will start taking possession of it in 2017),42 doubling the effective range of Chinese naval-based air defenses. The S-400 will cover the Senkaku Islands and increase pressure on US and Japanese air capabilities, given hardened Chinese air defenses and softened US air bases.43 The YJ-12 and YJ-18 cruise missiles derived from Russian sources represent a qualitative leap forward in Chinese cruise missile projection capabilities.44 This does not include the prospect of the sale of the Amur-class submarine to China, which would also represent a significant improvement in capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).45 Negotiations are now underway on exactly how China will acquire the capabilities that Russia promised it in 2013 and 2014. In March 2013, Russia agreed to sell 24 Sukhoi Su-35 multi-role combat jets and 4 Lada-class diesel submarines to China on the eve of newly installed President Xi Jinping’s first official visit to Moscow.46 Although details of the sale have yet to be worked out, observers say that it will represent the biggest sale of Russian weaponry to China in a decade.47 The Sukhoi Su-35, a fourth-generation stealth fighter, is superior to any plane now in China’s arsenal, while the Lada-class submarine is a more advanced, quieter version of the Kilo-class submarine it already possesses. Together, the two systems will provide the Chinese with a substantial boost in combat quality.48


According to the article announcing delivery of the S-400:

In April of this year, DefenseNews reported that the new weapon, if outfitted with 40N6 missiles, will greatly increase China’s air defense space, particularly in the East China Sea.49  The 400-kilometer-range system will, for the first time, allow China to strike any aerial target on the island of Taiwan, in addition to reaching air targets as far as New Delhi, Calcutta, Hanoi, and Seoul. The Yellow Sea and China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea will also be protected. The system will permit China, if need be, to strike any air target within North Korea. However, in his analysis, J. Michael Cole points out that this might be an overstatement: even if “Moscow would agree to sell the 40N6 missile, it would be very difficult for the new SAM system to cover all the cities and areas listed in the reports.” He continues: “The Senkakus, for example, are located 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) east of the Chinese mainland, thus at the very edge of the maximum operational range of the 40N6. The distance between New Delhi, another city named in the reports, and the Chinese border is about 400 km; moreover, to bring the Indian capital within range, not only would China need to deploy the S-400 right at the border—a not uncontroversial move—it would have to perform the difficult feat of deploying the system…in the middle of the Himalayas!”50


Acquiring the S-400 strikes a major blow against Taiwan’s defense and gives China uncontested air superiority over all of Taiwan’s territory and into Japanese waters.51 When these improved capabilities are taken in tandem with Chinese statements, exercises, and fleet deployments, we see that these capabilities have materially facilitated and are continuing to facilitate the ever-increasing use and bolder deployments of the PLAN and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) to threaten Japan.52 Russo-Chinese maritime collaboration has grown to a very considerable degree. Some observers believe that the latest joint Sino-Russian martime exercises of August 2015 were the largest maritme exercise they had undertaken in scope and size, including amphibious landings that could be targeted against Japan.

The trajectory of recent maritime exercises, however, suggests that partnership has exceeded the original template of military cooperation. The naval drills are significant not only for the size of the contingents involved, but also for the quality of interaction, which now seems as structured as the US Navy’s many structured drills with its Asian-Pacific partners. The symbolism of growing Sino-Russian maritime synergy is both notionally relevant and functionally instructive. The military exercises have helped bolster the Sino-Russian strategic relationship, while reinforcing deterrence against perceived adversaries. By conducting the interactions in spaces dominated by America and its allies, Russia and China have sought to defy the US-led maritime order. The maritime exercises have provided a framework by which Russia and China can develop their indiviudal and collective defensive capabilites. Intensive combat-oriented operations also serve to signal a shift in the strategic balance of Asia. While the United States is still the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region, growing Chinese and Russian nautical interaction heralds the beginning of a multipolar or possibly bipolar maritime order in Asia.53



Despite the supposedly ongoing normalization negotiations, Russia has probably forfeited its chance to repair relations with Japan and open up Japanese investment to it. Given the “correlation of forces” today, unilateral Japanese concessions on sanctions at the expense of ties with Washington would appear to court excessive risks for minimal gains.54 Upon signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in early October 2015, Abe stated, “Japan and the United States will together lead the Asia-Pacific toward the goal of turning it into an ocean of freedom and prosperity, working in partnership with countries that share values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law.”55 Breaking with Washington would undermine this vision.


The normalization process will probably continue to flounder on the incompatibilities of the two sides’ objectives and orientations and the growing estrangement of Russia and the United States. While that failure represents a significant setback to Japan, it retains other options as its alliance with Washington has greatly strengthened, and it is clearly vigorously acting to project its influence into Southeast and South Asia and even to Australia in order to buttress a coalition resistant to China.56 Russia, in contrast, has no comparable options to compensate for failing to improve ties with Japan. Lavrov stated:

In regards to international issues, we feel—and our Chinese friends share this view—that our cooperation and coordination in the international arena are one of the most important stabilizing factors in the world system. We regularly coordinate our approaches to various conflicts, whether it is in the Middle East, North Africa, or the Korean Peninsula. We have regular and frank and confidential consultations.57

Failed normalization of Russo-Japanese relations is a longstanding story, as both sides have repeatedly acted to frustrate efforts toward a resolution of the issues of a peace treaty to World War II and the Kuril Islands. Russian elites have repeatedly urged Japan to detach economic issues from political issues, hoping to gain the economic benefits of ties to Japan without making concessions on security issues. They habitually believe that what holds back Japanese businessmen is Tokyo’s insistence on first resolving political issues, but they cannot grasp that Japanese business, partly due to Russia’s well-known obstructions, still finds Russia a difficult and inhospitable place in which to invest.58 New laws allowing the seizure of foreign economic assets will further obstruct foreign investment in general, not just Japanese investment.59


Misconceptions may have helped blind Japan concerning how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the equation. Due to that and the ensuing Western reactions to it, Japan had no choice but to impose and retain sanctions on Russia, even if it did so reluctantly.60 But it failed to see how those sanctions gradually ratcheted up Russia’s anger with a Japan that it felt was too subservient to the United States, and it also clearly failed to take adequate account of the evolution of Sino-Russian relations. Russia’s dependence on China for economic relief and political support has grown by an order of magnitude. Moscow may want to retain its independence as a great power in Asia, but increasingly it has to acquiesce in Beijing’s agenda and that certainly limits any possible rapprochement with Japan.


The political rationale for moving forward with normalization evaporated over the course of 2014 and 2015, bringing us to the current situation. Ukraine, Syria, and the fundamental anti-Americanism of Russian policy and its growing dependence upon China stand in the way of any serious rapprochement with Japan. This is the case even though China’s support for Russia’s position on the Kuril Islands is as lukewarm as Moscow’s support for its position on the Senkakus.61 Nor will Washington favorably countenance Russian efforts to break up the sanctions regime. Once again it appears that diverging international perspectives and mutual misperceptions by both Moscow and Tokyo will impede efforts to normalize their entangled relationship, but while this will be a blow to Abe’s grand design. Ultimately, it is Russia that will have to suffer the bigger burden of being alone with a China that is itself fostering the growth of an anti-Chinese coalition, which is leading states to draw closer to Japan, the benefits of which far outweigh the benefits of aligning with Putin’s Russia.62 Unless it radically changes course, Russia will merely have the honor of increasingly serving China’s interests. For a state whose policy in Asia is premised on securing recognition as a great independent power, no more ignominious paradox can be imagined.

1. Justin McCurry, “Vladimir Putin’s Visit to Japan Postponed Indefinitely,” The Guardian, October 15, 2015,

2. See successive postings of “Country Report: Russia” and “Country Report: Japan” in The Asan Forum.

3. Brian Padden, “Russia’s ‘Asian Pivot’ Seen in Kuril Military Expansion,” Voice of America, October 26, 2015,

4. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, June 6, 2011; Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Central Eurasia (henceforth FBIS SOV), June 7, 2011.

5. Hideki Soejima and Akiyoshi Komaki, “Putin Proposes Starting Over in Negotiations Over Northern Territories,” The Asahi Shimbun, March 2, 2012,

6. Interfax, May 19, 2010; FBIS SOV, May 19, 2010.

7. Nathan Hodge, “Putin Pitches Foreign Investments in Russia’s Far East,” The Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2015,

8. “Country Report: Japan,” The Asan Forum 3, no. 3 (2015): 228-230.

9. Valery Kistanov, “Russia-Japan Peace Treaty and Territorial Dispute: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” Valdai Club, October 8, 2015,

10. “No Problem! Moscow Says Kuril Islands Not an Issue, Tokyo Furious,” Sputnik, September 4, 2015,

11. “Japan Says Russian Official’s Suicide Remark ‘Unproductive,’” Kyodo News, August 25, 2015,

12. “Japan Protests After ‘Russian’ Plane Enters Airspace,” Agence France Presse, September 16, 2015.

13. Prashanth Parameswaran, “Japan Wary of Rising Russian Threat: Ex-Defense Minister,” The Diplomat, September 10, 2015,; Ko Hirano, “Abe Quandary: How to Court Putin and Still Maintain Sanctions Over Crimea,” Kyodo News, September 11, 2015,

14. Kazuhiko Togo, “Historical Background and Outstanding Issues in Japan-Russia Relations: Views from Moscow and Tokyo,” and Dmitri Streltsov, “Implications for the Region and the U.S.-Japan Alliance” (remarks given at the conference “Prospects for Japan-Russia Relations and Implications for the US-Japan Alliance” for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, November 16, 2015).

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ko Hirano, “Abe Quandary.”

18. Hiroyuki Akita, “Russia Playing to Win with Japan Diplomacy,” Nikkei Asian Review, September 15, 2015,

19. Takuya Suzuki, “Abe, Putin Agree to Coordinate Visit by Russian President to Japan,” The Asan Shimbun, September 29, 2015,

20. Lyudmila Aleksandrova, “Analysts: Russian-Japanese Relations Show Signs of Thawing,” ITAR-TASS, September 23, 2015,

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. “Country Report: Japan,” The Asan Forum 3, no. 5 (2015).

24. Aleksandrova, “Analysts: Russian-Japanese Relations.”

25. Shannon Tiezzi, “China Tests Japan’s Resolve Over East China Sea,” The Diplomat, October 21, 2015,

26. Pavel K. Baev and Stein Toenesson, “Can Russia Keep Its Special Ties with Vietnam While Moving Closer and Closer to China?” International Area Studies Review 8, no. 3 (2015): 318.

27. Alexander Gabuev, “A Reality Check for Russia’s China Pivot” (Moscow: Carnegie Moscow Center, September 29, 2015),

28. Baev and Toenesson, “Can Russia Keep Its Special Ties With Vietnam,” 317.

29. For Yeltsin’s quote, see Stylianos A. Sotiriou, Russian Energy Strategy in the European Union, the Former Soviet Union Region, and China (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), 4.

30. “Joint Statement of the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation on the Current International Situation and Major International Issues,” Beijing Xinhua Domestic Service, in Chinese, June 16, 2011; FBIS SOV, June 16, 2011.

31. Robert Karniol, “Russia’s Place in Asia-Pac Security Set-Up,” The Straits Times, June 22, 2011; FBIS SOV, June 22, 2011; Interfax, in English, June 6, 2011; FBIS SOV, June 6, 2011.

32. Conversations with US analysts, Washington, DC, March 2011; Vinay Shukla, “Russia for Building New Security Architecture in Asia-Pacific,” Press Trust of India, January 13, 2011; Sergei Lavrov, “Russia-India: A Decade of Strategic Partnership,” International Affairs, no. 1 (2011): 3-5.

33. “China, Russia Call for Efforts in Asia-Pacific Security,” China Daily, September 28, 2010.

34. Dmitry Medvedev, “The Draft of the European Security Treaty,” Russian Presidential Executive Office, November 29, 2009.

35. Stephen Blank, “We Can Live Without You: Dialogue and Rivalry in Russo-Japanese Relations,” Comparative Strategy 14, no. 1 (1993): 173-198; Stephen Blank, “Diplomacy at an Impasse: Russia and Japan in a New Asia,” Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 5, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1993): 141-164.

36. Hyodo Shinji, “Japan-Russia Relations in Triangular Context with China,” The Asan Forum 1, no. 3 (2013).

37. Parameswaran, “Japan Wary of Rising Russian Threat;” Ko Hirano, “Abe Quandary.”

38. Ministry of Defense of Japan, Defense of Japan 2015 (2015), Section IV, 10-11.

39. For one recent example, see Paul Schwartz, Russia’s Contribution to China’s Surface Warfare Capabilities: Feeding the Dragon (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2015).

40. Ibid., 12.

41. Ibid.; See also Mikhail Barabanov, “China’s Military Modernization: The Russian Factor,” Moscow Defense Brief 18, no. 4 (2009).

42. Franz-Stefan Gady, “China to Receive Russia’s S-400 Missile Defense Systems in 12-18 Months,” The Diplomat, November 17, 2015,

43. Wendell Minnick, “Time Running Out for Taiwan If Russia Releases S-400M,” DefenseNews, May 25, 2013,

44. Paul Schwartz, Russia’s Contribution to China’s Surface Warfare Capabilities, 38.

45. Vladimir Radyuhin, “The Dragon Gets a Bear Hug,” The Hindu, March 8, 2013,

46. Kenneth Rapoza, “After a Decade Long Wait, China and Russia Ink ‘Super Jet’ Military Deal,” Forbes, March 25, 2013,

47. Choi Chi-yuk, “China to Buy Lada-class Subs, Su-35 Fights from Russia,” South China Morning Post, updated March 27, 2013,

48. Michael Klare, “The Cold War Redux?” Asia Times Online, June 3, 2013,

49. J. Michael Cole, “Alarm over China’s S-400 Acquisition is Premature, The Diplomat, April 22, 2015,

50. Gady, “China to Receive Russia’s S-400 Missile Defense Systems in 12-18 Months.”

51. Minnick, “Time Running Out for Taiwan If Russia Releases S-400M.”

52. Christopher H. Sharman, “China Moves Out: Stepping Stones toward a New Maritime Strategy,” China Strategic Perspectives, no. 9 (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, April 2015).

53. Abhijit Singh, “The Emerging China-Russia Maritime Nexus in the Eurasian Commons,” The Diplomat, September 17, 2015,

54. Mitsuru Obe, “Japan Ready to Lead in Asia Pacific, Abe Says,” The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2015,

55. Ibid.

56. Ibid.; Gilbert Rozman, “Japan’s Approach to Southeast Asia in the Context of Sino-Japanese Relations,” The Asan Forum 2, no.5 (2014).

57. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Statement and Answers to Questions from the Media by Russian Foreign Minister S.V. Lavrov at the Press Conference on the Results of Russia’s Chairmanship of the UN Security Council, New York, October 1, 2015,” BBC Monitoring.

58. Sergei Strokan and Vladimir Mikheev, “Going Eastward: Moscow Seeks Full Integration into Asia But What Can It Offer?” Russia Beyond the Headlines, September 3, 2015,; Nina V. Ershova, “Japanese Business in Russia: Local Challenges and Adaptation,” National Research University Higher School of Economics, Working Papers Series: International Relations, Research Paper No. WP BRP 19/IR/2015, November 5, 2015.

59. “Russian Law Allowing Seizure of Foreign-Owned Assets Passed by Federation Council,” The Moscow Times, October 28, 2015,

60. Stephen Blank, “The Crisis in Ukraine Claims Another Victim: Russo-Japanese Rapprochement,” Eurasia Daily Monitor 11, is. 104 (June 10, 2014).

61. Vasily Kashin, “Japanese and Russian Perceptions and Priorities for Security and Foreign Policy in the Asia Pacific” (remarks given at the conference “Prospects for Japan-Russia Relations and Implications for the US-Japan Alliance” for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC, November 16, 2015).; James D.J. Brown, “Towards an Anti-Japanese Territorial Front? Russia and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Dispute,” Europe-Asia Studies 67, no. 6 (August 2015): 893-915.

62. Rozman, “Japan’s Approach to Southeast Asia in the Context of Sino-Japanese Relations;” Franz-Stefan Gady, “Japan to Offer Australia Its Top-Secret Submarine Technology,” The Diplomat, October 7, 2015,