Chris Miller for the German Marshall Fund
At a time when Russia is criticized across the West for invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and meddling in elections, Japan remains committed to trying to build closer ties with Russia. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe believes that better relations with Moscow would promote Japan’s long-term interests in the Asia-Pacific region, and he has devoted significant political capital to improving ties. Tokyo sees its relationship with Moscow as an area of focus over the next several years.
What are Russia’s goals in its relation with Japan? How does Russia expect relations to develop given current trends in Asia-Pacific politics? Moscow is happy to develop relations with Tokyo, seeking both to benefit in economic terms and to puncture further the semi-isolation that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. But the Kremlin has made no sign that it intends to compromise on the status of the four disputed Kuril Islands, which Russia occupies but Japan claims. Nor does Russia’s foreign policy elite see an immediate need to improve ties with Japan as a means of hedging against China, though some recognize the long-term logic of such a move. For now, though, there is little reason to expect substantive Russian concessions designed to improve Russo–Japanese relations. Russian leaders are happy to attend meetings, sign memoranda, and accept promises of foreign investments from Japan. When it comes to the Kuril Islands, however, the Kremlin sees no need to offer Tokyo anything new.