The Japan Forum on International Relations

August 02,2021

What is Putin’s Strategy on Japan? Vigilance needed on Russia’s ‘Peace Treaty’ Proposal

Talks between Japan and Russia on the Northern Territories are at a complete deadlock, at the lowest level in the history of negotiations. In the midst of all this, I could not believe my eyes at the recent reports in one Japanese media. On April 4, at an online conference with the heads of news agencies of various countries, President Putin stated, “I do not believe that negotiations with Japan on a peace treaty should be suspended,” although it is necessary to take into account the revision of the constitution containing a clause prohibiting the cession of territory. This statement was widely reported by the above-mentioned media, including several lengthy commentaries, with a surprisingly positive tone, because it implied that Putin had “overturned the claim of Russian politics that territorial negotiations with Japan were forbidden (by the constitutional amendment)” and that “a definite deterioration in relations has been avoided.” Since this media outlet defines itself as “Japan’s leading journalism” and in fact has a certain amount of influence, the Russian side is also paying attention.

As has already been made clear by both Japanese and Russian senior officials, the Russian side is proposing to conclude a peace treaty that does not include the territorial issue. The reason why Japan and the Soviet Union were unable to conclude a peace treaty in 1956 was because they could not agree on this issue. In other words, the “peace treaty” that Putin and his team are proposing is essentially not a peace treaty in essence. What does this mean? The Putin administration’s aim is to conclude a treaty similar to the “Good Neighbor Treaty,” which has been a major goal of Russia’s strategy toward Japan since the Soviet era.

It has been relegated to oblivion, except for a few experts and political insiders, but luckily or unluckily, one draft has been revealed. In January 1978, under the Brezhnev administration of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko forcibly presented a draft of the “Japan-Soviet Good Neighbor Cooperation Treaty” to Foreign Minister Sonoda Sunao, who was visiting Moscow at the time. In late February of the same year, without Japan’s consent, the draft was unilaterally published in Izvestia and Pravda( soviet major newspapers). Article 3 of the draft treaty stated, “the Soviet Union and Japan are obliged not to allow their territories to be used for any action that might damage the security of one of the parties,” and Article 4 stated, “the signatories are obliged to refrain from any action that might lead a third party to commit an act of aggression against either of them.”

What this meant was that the “Treaty of Good Neighborly Cooperation” would have allowed a constant Russian interference in Japan’s internal affairs, including the elimination of U.S. military bases in Japan and other measures that would make it impossible to maintain the Japan-U.S. alliance. The contents of the treaty were considered insulting and caused outrage on the Japanese side. The late Professor Emeritus Kimura Hiroshi of Hokkaido University, who was a leading authority in the study of Russian diplomacy, criticized the treaty, saying, “It is like viewing Japan as if it were a satellite or ally of the Soviet Union.” (Kimura, History of Japan-Russia Border Negotiations, 1992.)

There is no doubt that at the heart of Mr. Putin’s strategy toward Japan lies the weakening of the Japan-U.S. alliance and the separation of the two countries. As was shown at the G7 summit held in the UK, which President Biden attended for the first time, and at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels, Russia, along with China, is in severe conflict with the West and other advanced democracies. However, although Japan is a member of the G7, it has avoided proactive criticism of Russia and is prepared to proceed with economic cooperation in a quiet manner. For Putin`s Russia, Japan is the most useful country in the Western camp.

As such, suspending negotiations with Japan and deliberately worsening relations is an unthinkable option for Russia.

Whether it is called a “Peace Treaty” or a “Treaty of Good Neighborly Friendship,” If such a treaty is concluded with Japan, it will have the greatest significance for Russia’s strategy toward the United States.

This is because the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty regime would cease to function and the alliance between the two countries would collapse. This would effectively place Japan in a “neutral” position and disrupt a part of the international encirclement of Russia by democratic countries. This alone is a great victory for the Russian side. However, if economic and technological cooperation, including large-scale projects and technical cooperation with Japan as an economic major power, expands substantially as a result of the conclusion of the “Treaty of Good Neighborliness,” it will be a blessing for the Russian economy, which has been suffering due to sanctions and other factors. In addition, it will help foster a pro-Russian atmosphere by stimulating human exchange in all areas including social, cultural, and artistic fields. Besides, it will also serve as a deterrent to China, which is Russia’s largest partner with a clear gap in national power, and thus has great significance in terms of East Asian strategy. For the Putin administration, which is struggling with a declining approval rating, this would be a tremendous tailwind. The chances of this happening are slim to none, but for Mr. Putin, it is certainly a dreamlike scenario that could lead to a breakthrough in his domestic and foreign policy.

On the contrary, it goes without saying that for Japan, the conclusion of such a treaty would be a devastating blow to its national interests. The Northern Territories issue would be permanently shelved, inviting permanent interference in Japan’s internal affairs by Russia as a major military power, and making it impossible for Japan to even pursue an independent foreign policy. If this happens, Japan’s credibility with the West and other democratic nations will be greatly diminished, and it will be left in a state of de facto isolation. For Japan, this would be nothing more than a literal path to national extinction. This is truly the worst possible scenario.

At the press conference, Mr. Putin stressed that “Japan and Russia are strategically interested in concluding a peace treaty.” However, these words should not be taken at face value. It is clear that the strategic interests of Japan, which is expected to be a leader of democracy in Asia, are not aligned with those of today’s Russia, which has become increasingly authoritarian and is thoroughly repressing Mr. Alexei Navalny and other democratic forces by labeling them as extremists. On the contrary, they are fundamentally antagonistic.

To begin with, Mr. Putin was the one who completely changed the diplomatic line of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who ended the Cold War, and the first Russian President Yeltsin, who, as the leader of the new Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, upheld common values with the West and Japan. Mr. Putin made it more confrontational with the democratic camp led by the U.S., just like the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. Against the backdrop of a nuclear force as powerful as that of the U.S. and a variety of new weapons including hypersonic missiles, Russia, along with Xi Jinping’s China, is posing a challenge to the liberal international order and universal values.

In this light, it is clear that Mr. Putin has no intention of suspending negotiations for a peace treaty with Japan, regardless of whether or not the constitution has been revised.

If the negotiations are suspended, it will be difficult to promote economic assistance, such as the “eight-point economic cooperation” and the “joint economic activities” in the Northern Territories, which Russia most desires. Not only that, but it would also have a negative impact on Russia’s diplomatic strategy.

It is clear that the suspension of negotiations will put Russia in a disadvantageous position in East Asian diplomacy, as it will lose the “Japan card” that it barely holds in its relations with China. This puts Russia into an inferior position against China as a “junior partner.” On the other hand, seen from the Japanese side, the government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, which inherited the policy of negotiations on the Northern Territories from the previous administration of Shinzo Abe, would admit to a “major failure” in its policy toward Russia if negotiations were suspended. Therefore, the Japanese and Russian administrations are on the same team with different goals with both sides having no choice but to “continue the negotiations.”

There is no doubt that it was Putin’s policy to include a clause prohibiting territorial cession in the revision of the Russian constitution, and this is probably intended as a major psychological pressure to make Japan give up the Northern Territories issue and accept the “Good Neighbor Treaty” more easily. The Japanese side should not be swayed by the various hard and soft pressures from Putin’s Russia.

If we consider that the “suspension” of the negotiations will lead to an opportunity to reset the “negative legacy” brought about by the Abe/Putin negotiations and to rebuild the strategy toward Putinist Russia, we cannot say that the “suspension” of the negotiations is simply a setback for Japan.

When commenting on the Northern Territories negotiations, a Japanese expert on Russia once told me, “If I use a backward tone, I won’t be taken seriously, and it won’t make headlines, so the media won’t use me.” I’m sure Mr. Putin is well aware of the way the Japanese media and experts react to his every word. I have long believed that Mr. Putin effectively uses what sound like positive remarks at certain points as a “shot in the arm” in order to keep Japanese people’s expectations high. Since the “draw” statement about nine years ago, there has been no shortage of such examples. In other words, Russia may be convinced that in order to indirectly manipulate public opinion in Japan, there is no need for complex propaganda and information manipulation as is done in the West.

This report on Putin’s remarks could even be called a “ misinformation.” It may sound harsh, but this media outlet is required by society to be highly public, and since it claims to provide “accurate and impartial news,” it is impossible to ignore it. This is a separate issue from freedom of the press. As Fiona Hill, a prominent scholar of Russian politics and a former official at the U.S. National Security Council , emphasizes in her book, 『Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin』 ,we should not take Mr. Putin’s words at face value. It is important to remember once again that the core of the current Russian government, including Mr. Putin, a former member of the Committee for State Security of the Soviet Union (KGB), is a professional in information warfare.

(This is the English translation of an article written by TOKIWA Shin, Distinguished Research Fellow, JFIR / Deputy Foreign Editor of Tokyo Shimbun, which originally appeared on the e-forum “Hyakka-Seiho (Hundred Flowers in Full Bloom)” of JFIR on June 19, 2021.)