Thinking the Unthinkable: Can Japan Bring Russia Back to the G7?


For Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 2016 is a special year. As the chairman of the G7 summit, he aims to showcase Japan’s global leadership. The prime minister’s diplomatic zest is well-known and largely fueled by his “Abe Doctrine.” This doctrine promotes an ambitious, multi-vector foreign policy that has made him the most traveled Japanese leader in history. In just three years, Prime Minister Abe has visited more than 63 countries and held more than 400 summits.

Yet the one legacy item Abe seems most intent on securing will not be available to him at the G7: Russo–Japanese rapprochement. This overshadows all aspects of the prime minister’s remaining foreign policy energy. Russia has a long running territorial dispute with Japan over the Kuril Islands and has never officially signed a peace treaty ending World War II which Abe would like to rectify after over 70 years. But Russia is also at odds with the West over Ukraine (which got Russia booted from what was the G8) and Syria. As such, rapprochement with Russia is an increasingly controversial proposition for a staunch U.S. ally. Nonetheless, despite concerns in Washington, Tokyo’s enthusiasm for overtures with Moscow is actually nothing new and has reinvigorated the two countries’ high-level interactions in recent months.

Abe sees an opportunity to be the only G7 leader capable of maintaining friendly channels with Putin. Indeed, Abe virtually has carte blanche over the direction of the conference as his G7 chairmanship offers considerable authority regarding membership and agenda setting. However, inviting Putin to the G7 summit does not seem to be in the cards given the state of international affairs. Yet this has not dampened Abe’s ambitions to bring Putin back in from the cold to the G7. Abe has announced an “unofficial” summit with Putin this coming May in Sochi. The optics, symbolism, and timing of this visit are significant. The summit will be held shortly before the G7 summit on the idyllic Kashiko Island. And it may be quickly followed by a visit by Putin to Tokyo right after the G7 given Abe’s deep desire to serve as a bridge for Russia’s re-entry to the international community.

However, engaging with the Kremlin is easier said than done. For this has the potential of inadvertently hindering Japan’s solidarity with other G7 members, particularly with the United States, while working to Russia’s advantage. Therefore, effective communication with both Washington and Moscow will be key. If Abe can pull this off, it will not only solidify Japan’s ascension as a global power, but may also limit the deepening of hostilities between the West and Russia in what has been called by none other than Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev as a new Cold War. To ensure this, Abe should consider the seemingly impossible balancing act of inviting Putin to Japan with allies’ concerns over its overtures to the Russian bear in advance of the G7 summit in May.

From Japan with an Olive Branch

Historically, Japan has viewed Russia as key to its maritime-centric strategy. As the first Asian power to beat a European power in the Russo–Japanese war at the turn of the 20th century and having ended World War II on opposite sides there is healthy respect in both countries for each other. Yet for Abe, Russia is more personal than geostrategic. Abe’s father, Shintaro Abe, who served as the foreign minister in the 1980s, enjoyed warm personal relations with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. However, the elder Abe’s untimely death in 1991 cut short his efforts for détente with Moscow. In his 2013 interview with the Russian state media TASS, the junior Abe revealed that achieving Russo–Japanese rapprochement was his late father’s “dying wish.”

In April 2013, Abe became the first leader to visit Russia since former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2003. During the visit, Abe expressed to Putin his enthusiasm for rapprochement. He also used this opportunity to discuss a summit that would officially resume the bilateral dialogue about resolving the Kuril Island disputes and finally signing a peace treaty to end World War II hostilities. The new phase of the Russo–Japanese relations spawned renewed bilateral cooperation, including the Japan–Russia Foreign and Defense Ministers Meeting (“2+2”). It also generated a personal bond between the two leaders, which culminated in Abe’s attendance at the opening ceremony of the controversial 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Even though the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis stalled the emerging détente between Japan and Russia, Abe sees 2016 as a new beginning for relations via increasingly ebullient engagement towards Moscow. The prime minister expressed his enthusiasm for rapprochement through various major platforms, such as in a highly publicized English-language interview with the Financial Times, in the Nikkei Asian Review on January 16, and in his annual “state of the union” policy speech to the Diet on January 22. All of this presaged the announcement of his trip Sochi in May which also seems to be a prelude to Putin’s long awaited visit to Tokyo.

Putin’s Machiavellian Calculations

Abe’s optimism is largely predicated on Putin’s track record for resolving territorial disputes and Moscow’s hints that a settlement with Japan is in the cards. For example, in 2004, the Russian leader settled the 300-year-old Sino–Russian border dispute that once symbolized the Sino–Soviet split of the 1960s. In March 2012, the then-presidential candidate Putin used the Judo terms “hajime (begin)” and “hikiwake (draw)” to insinuate Moscow’s evolving perspective on the Kuril Island dispute, once again demonstrating his desire to resolve lingering border disputes on its periphery. Putin referred to the four Kuril Islands again after the 2014 annexation of Crimea as the subject of future bilateral negotiations, signaling a potential departure from Moscow’s official commitment to its “two-island” solution as opposed to Tokyo’s demand for a “four-island” deal.

Despite Abe’s optimism, there is room for caution. Putin is a realist and has often treated his Japanese counterpart cynically. This is largely because of Abe’s frequent consultations with Washington regarding his Russian policy, which has been a major area of discussion leading to the G7 summit. From Putin’s perspective, such actions further reflect Tokyo’s subordination to Washington rather than obligatory protocols between the two allies. As a result, Moscow has sent provocative signals towards Tokyo, most notably by its recent military buildup on the disputed islands.

Divergent motives for rapprochement between Tokyo and Moscow also drive Putin’s calculations. Tokyo hopes to leverage its warmer relations with Moscow to balance against China as well as to boost Japan’s standing as a global player. By contrast, although similarly uneasy about China’s rise, Moscow remains more interested in reducing its economic dependence on its Asian neighbor. Putin hopes to exploit Tokyo’s optimism to attract Japanese investment to develop its Siberian hinterland. Indeed, Russia is less concerned about China’s military rise than Tokyo because Moscow’s arms sales have successfully bolstered Beijing’s naval modernization efforts, shifting its geopolitical focus to the East and South China Seas. Moreover, Moscow has virtually no appetite for foregoing the Kuril Islands, largely due to the nuclear-equipped submarine “sanctuary” it established in the 1970s and ‘80s in the Sea of Okhotsk aimed at the U.S. west coast.

Putin still appears to have the upper hand over Abe as they seek historic rapprochement. However, despite Putin’s nonchalant attitude, Moscow ultimately needs Tokyo more, due to Russia’s desperate economic straits and need to reinvigorate its stumbling pivot to Asia to compensate for its flank in Eastern Europe. Nonetheless, Putin’s strategy has successfully generated the international perception that Japan is pursuing Russia, and Abe’s upcoming visit to Sochi in advance of the G7 could further reinforce such an image if not managed carefully.

This perception has caused Japan’s American ally to express reservations about Tokyo’s evolving relations with Moscow. During a bilateral phone exchanged in early February, President Barack Obama urged Abe to cancel his upcoming visit to Sochi later this spring. In a rare move, the Japanese prime minister snubbed Washington’s entreaty, underscoring his unwavering determination to pursue normalized relations with Russia. Washington’s consternation reflects Tokyo’s inadvertent challenge to the U.S. strategy of isolating Russia.

Russia’s G7 Comeback: A Potential Booster for Japan’s Global Leadership

Nonetheless, Russia’s intervention in the Syrian conflict seems to have broken Russia’s isolation on the international stage and transformed Putin into a force to be reckoned with on a host of issues, especially the ongoing Syrian civil war. As a result, the West is increasingly finding itself forced to make deals with Russia. However, welcoming Putin back with open arms to the international community still remains a controversial proposition for most Western leaders, particularly in the context of the simmering war in eastern Ukraine and the humanitarian disaster in Syria, much of it fueled by Russian airstrikes.

Walking this tightrope for Abe involves simultaneously accomplishing two difficult feats. First, he must effectively persuade his fellow leaders and member countries, particularly the United States, of the benefits of inviting Putin to the G7. He should maximize his upcoming visits to the United States and Europe later this spring before the G7 by emphasizing the need for international cooperation with Russia over Syria. He also must convince Obama he is not being naïve in his negotiations with Putin regarding the Kuril dispute.

Second, Abe must set the common security issues on Syria as the central agenda, particularly on how to defeat the Islamic State and deal with the refugees. He must avoid Russia’s territorial issues for now, including Ukraine and the Kuril Islands. By emphasizing G7 solidarity and values on Syrian issues, Abe could potentially encourage the other six countries to find areas of cooperation with Putin. This could lead to potential reconciliation with Moscow and Abe’s emergence as a peacemaker. Such united efforts would also check Putin’s potential attempts to exploit the international summit.

Even for Japan’s strongman Abe, these proposals are a tall order. However, when one confronts a Machiavellian, he must fight fire with fire by demonstrating virtù. Such a show of realpolitik at the 21st-century comity of nations would prove the “Abe Doctrine’s” effectiveness, as G7 Chairman Abe successfully walks the diplomatic tightrope between Washington and Moscow. Given Abe’s enthusiasm and the favorable geopolitical climate, the 2016 G7 summit stands to be an opportune moment for implementing the seemingly unimaginable solution of restoring Russia back to the international community.


Joshua W. Walker, PhD (@drjwalk) leads the Japan work at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, teaches Security Policy at George Washington University and is the Founding Dean of the APCO Institute where Hidetoshi Azuma is an Adjunct Fellow and Master’s student studying Security Policy at GWU.


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