Both Moscow and Tokyo are interested in reinvigorating their ties: Russia – to diversify its strategic partners in Asia-Pacific, Japan – to prove its foreign policy independence from the U.S.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting in Sochi, May 6, 2016. Photo: AP

Despite the fact that Moscow and Tokyo appear to be reinvigorating their bilateral relationship, the decades-long dispute over the Kuril Islands continues to loom over any attempts to find common ground. According to experts at a discussion organized by Carnegie Moscow Center on Sep. 12, though, it’s in the best interests of both nations to focus on the positives in their relationship.

The Kremlin should be more interested in establishing strategic cooperation with Japan because Russia needs to diversify its partners in Asia-Pacific. In the case of Japan, it is seeking to prove its independence in making foreign policy decisions from the United States.

Kaoru Iokibe, professor at the University of Tokyo, expressed hopes that the two countries would move from a vicious cycle in their relationship toward what he calls a “virtuous cycle.” With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Sochi in May and his attendance at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok earlier this month, it is high time Japan and Russia jumped at the opportunity to boost ties.

Indeed, Abe is an ambitious politician, who seeks to leave a robust political legacy and, specifically, improve his nation’s relations with Russia, argues Dmitri Streltsov, an expert from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University). The Japanese prime minister is independent and he has enough political will to do it, as indicated by his rejection of U.S. President Barack Obama’s recommendations not to go to Sochi in May. For Russia, it is a window of opportunity.

Also read: "Russia, Japan won't let Kuril Islands dispute hold back economic ties"

In turn, Iokibe argues that Tokyo should also look at Russia more seriously, with both nations needing “to go forward as soon as possible” so as not to miss the current chance to improve their relations.

Viktor Kuvaldin, head of the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the Moscow School of Economics of the Lomonosov Moscow State University, echoes this view. Regardless of the common challenges like the territorial disputes over the Kuril Islands and a very difficult past, it doesn’t mean Russia and Japan won’t be able to see eye-to-eye.

However, the expert remains realistic in such an assessment. He is in mindful about the Kremlin’s reluctance to deal with territorial disputes over the Kuril Islands before the 2018 presidential elections in Russia. So, politically, Russia is more prone to mistakes than Japan, according to him.

Russia and Japan: A love-hate relationship

Historically, Russia and Japan have seen each other rather as rivals than allies. The 1904-1905 Russian-Japanese War, the 1918 intervention in Siberia during the Civil war in Russia and World War II, when Tokyo teamed up with Fascist Germany, are good examples that illustrate the state of Russian-Japanese relations throughout the 20th century.

While Tokyo saw the Soviet Union as the aggressor that violated its territorial integrity by grabbing the Kuril Islands, Moscow perceived Japan as a hostile and revanchist nation cooperating with Nazi Germany and then the United States during and after the Cold War. No wonder today’s rapprochement between Japan and Russia attracts a great deal of interest from foreign policy observers.

However, contradictions between the two remain, with Moscow and Tokyo failing to sign a peace treaty 70 years after the end of World War II because of their territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. Yet they restored their diplomatic relations, thanks to the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Declaration, which was intended to reconcile Moscow and Tokyo.

Also read: "Why Russia's best friend in the G7 might turn out to be Japan"

The problem is that the territorial dispute between the countries conjures up an inferiority complex in Japan and a superiority complex in Russia, which plays up its historical glory and the victory over Germany and Japan during World War II. This hampers the attempts of the countries to sign a formal peace treaty.

While Russia focuses on the past in assessing the feasibility of the treaty, Japan looks into the future to alleviate its frustration of being victimized by history. Getting both sides to come to a common view is the major obstacle, according to Streltsov.

The key solution of the problem is to redirect the focus from the past to the future, according to the expert. Instead of saving the post-war status quo, Russia would be better off thinking about concessions in order to find common ground with Japan.

Likewise, it is in the interest of Tokyo to “cultivate mutual trust” with Moscow because Russia is “too big and too frightening,” argues Iokibe. In short, Russia is becoming a very important stakeholder in Asia-Pacific and could be a good counterbalance to China, playing a peacemaking role in the region in general, according to the expert. He believes that Moscow and Japan need a broader strategic cooperation. 

Establishing closer economic ties could be an important step forward in boosting their strategic partnership. But, unfortunately, economic ties are not a key element in Russian-Japanese relations today, with politics overshadowing economics, argues Streltsov. This is one of the flaws, because economic relations can alleviate tensions and “bring together” countries, so that “they cannot live without each other,” the expert says.

A good example is Japan’s economic cooperation with China and South Korea or the Beijing-Washington relationship of interdependence: Despite their political differences they are tied to each other, which prevents them from political crises. But Moscow and Tokyo lack this important component: Politics plays a greater role in their bilateral relations, with politicians manipulating public opinion to promote their agenda.

But, as indicated by the so-called eight-point plan of Abe presented in Sochi, Japan will try to reinvigorate economic ties with Russia despite political differences (over Ukraine). Previously, Japan focused on energy projects with Russia. However, in the future it plans to target the Russian upper middle class and expand its economic collaboration with Moscow to humanitarian fields – pharmaceuticals, medicine, technologies, urban planning and agriculture – that create many jobs, unlike energy infrastructure projects, argues Streltsov.

Anton Tsvetov, an expert at the Center for Strategic Research (CSR), echoes this view.

“Considering the Russian Far East is still experiencing demographic outflows, giving the locals a reason to stay is one of the hardest things for the government to do,” he told Russia Direct. “So if Japan follows through, we may expect Moscow to welcome its initiatives.”

“The ball is in the court of both sides,“ said Streltsov pointing out that Moscow and Tokyo should do their utmost to improve relations. Otherwise the relations may worsen, but this is in the interests of neither Japan nor Russia.

For Japan, being involved in a head-to-head confrontation with China is a nightmare, because it cannot be confident that the U.S. will help, Kuvaldin argues. That’s why it needs a Russian counterbalance to Beijing strategically. Likewise, the China factor does matter for Russia at the very least because it needs to diversify its Asia-Pacific partners, instead of relying only on China, according to Streltsov. It is important for Russia to have several partners in the region, because it makes the nation more confident in the international arena — both politically and economically.

Also read: "Why Russia needs stronger ties with Japan"

In this regard, Tsvetov sees the new Japanese approach towards Russia as “very timely.” According to him, it plays into Russia's Asia policy very well.

“There has always been a desire in Moscow to see the pivot to Asia as a diversified and multifaceted policy,” he said. “Unfortunately, this was difficult to achieve mainly because, politically, countries like Japan and South Korea stand really far from Russia and ASEAN countries are just not resourceful enough. That is why the Japanese attempt to offer a new agenda for economic cooperation is a good chance for Russia to redistribute the stakes and hedge the risks of overreliance on China.”

Yaroslav Lissovolik, the Eurasian Development Bank’s chief economist, further develops Tsvetov’s view. Japan and South Korea might become a sort of bridge for Russia to the U.S., in particular, he told Russia Direct during the Eastern Economic Forum. During the period of the Russia-West confrontation, this matters.

Moreover, Streltsov argues, Washington could see better relations between Moscow and Japan as a favorable and stabilizing factor for the Asia-Pacific region, in general, given the tensions between China and other Southeast Asian stakeholders

However, there are some skeptics. Among them is Oleg Kulakov, a professor at the Military University of the Russian Defense Ministry. He is inclined to see Japan as a probable rival, given the presence of American military bases in Japan and its solidarity with the U.S. regarding the Ukrainian crisis. Russia and Japan cannot help paying attention to this if they really want to sign a peace treaty.

Moreover, Kulakov puts into question the very viability of the treaty. To follow his logic, if Moscow and Tokyo have not been fighting with each other since the end of World War II, why do they need the treaty now?

Thus, given their long history of political differences, it remains to be seen if Russia and Japan will finally take advantage of the unique opportunity to bolster their bilateral relations.