TOKYO – For Japanese leaders and citizens, President Vladimir Putin’s brutal annexation of Crimea was an unsurprising return to the normal paradigm of Russian history. Indeed, most Japanese regard the move as having been determined by some expansionist gene in Russia’s political DNA, rather than by Putin himself or the specifics of the Ukraine crisis.
Japan is particularly concerned with Russian expansionism, because it is the only G-7 country that currently has a territorial dispute with Russia, which has occupied its Northern Territories since the waning days of World War II. That occupation began between August 28 and September 5, 1945, when the Soviet Union hurriedly nullified the existing Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Treaty and invaded not only Japanese-occupied Manchuria, but also southern Sakhalin Island and the ancient Japanese territories of Etorofu Island, Kunashiri Island, Shikotan Island, and the Habomai Islands.
Concerned that America’s development and use of atomic weapons against Japan would deprive the Soviet Union of any territorial gains in the east, Stalin ordered the Red Army to invade. But Japan, having already endured the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had accepted the Potsdam Declaration on August 14, meaning that the war was already over when the Red Army marched in.
Since then, these islands have been controlled by either the Soviet Union or its successor state, Russia. And, as elsewhere in Russia, their residents have been impoverished by consistently incompetent and corrupt government, whether run by Communists or today’s crony capitalists.
In a strange historical twist, given the Crimean annexation, after the Japanese citizens native to the Northern Territories were killed or expelled, many Ukrainians were brought to the islands during the Soviet years, and still live there. If an independence referendum were to be held on Etorofu Island, where some 60% of the inhabitants have roots in Ukraine, I wonder whether Putin would accept the result as readily as he did the ballot in Crimea, undertaken at the barrel of a gun?
After coming to power at the end of 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had sought to improve relations with Putin in the hope of beginning serious talks on the Northern Territories. But now that Putin has made his project of imperial restoration crystal clear, those hopes are stillborn.
Recognizing this, Abe condemned the annexation of Crimea, calling it “a violation of Ukraine’s integrity and the integrity of its sovereignty and territory.” Abe added that “attempts to change the status quo by force cannot be overlooked,” and that Japan would consider further economic sanctions against Russia in cooperation with the G-7.
Needless to say, these remarks underscored the fact that Japanese territory and territorial waters are being threatened “by force” in the East China Sea by China. The lesson now being drawn is that, where territorial disputes are concerned, Japan must not kowtow to “attempts to change the status quo backed by force.”
China’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was particularly revealing. For three decades, China has proclaimed “non-interference” in the internal affairs of sovereign states as the most important rule governing international relations. But when Putin invaded Ukraine, China showed the hollowness of its adherence to this principle. Instead of condemning Russia for invading and annexing Crimea, it abstained at the United Nations Security Council, and has offered more criticism of Ukraine’s new popular government than it has of Putin’s thuggish behavior.
Every country in Asia is bound to draw only one conclusion from China’s tacit approval of Putin’s Crimean land grab: China, too, thinks that might makes right, and if it believes that it can get away with invading disputed territories, whether in the South China Sea or in the Indian Himalayas, it will do so. As a result, effective deterrence will require Asian countries to strengthen their defenses and unite to demand adherence to international law, so that China understands that any Putin-style land grabs will cost its economy dearly.
In the immediate future, Japan will work with the G-7 to ensure that Putin’s reckless ambitions do not endanger other parts of Ukraine. Already, Japan has decided to provide ¥150 billion ($1.5 billion) in economic aid for Ukraine, the largest pledge by any individual country, including the US, thus far.
Before the Crimea invasion, territorial negotiations between Japan and Russia showed signs of progress. Moreover, several bilateral economic cooperation efforts, such as projects involving liquefied natural gas, were moving forward.
But it is now clear not only that Putin is returning Russia to the stagnation of the late-Soviet era, but also that he subscribes to former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s dictum that “what we have, we hold.” So Putin’s talk about reaching an agreement with Japan on the Northern Territories was likely as mendacious as his claims that Russians in Crimea were in peril, and thus in need of protection by Russian troops.
More important, Japan understands that business as usual with an aggressive Russia that undermines the international order could embolden others closer to home to embrace Putin’s lawless tactics. The days of an inward looking Japan are over. Japan now sees threats elsewhere in the world in the context of its own security, and will react appropriately.