Announcement of a breakthrough in Russian-Japanese relations

At a meeting in Vladivostok on 3 September, the leaders of Russia and Japan, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe, announced a date for the Russian President to visit Japan: 15 December. At the same time, Prime Minister Abe declared Tokyo’s willingness to intensify its economic cooperation with Russia without waiting to find a solution to the dispute over the Northern Kurils. In turn, President Putin suggested that, in the case of economic rapprochement, Moscow does not rule out making compromises on the Kurils issue.



  • The declarations by both parties suggest a possible agreement on a common formula for seeking a solution to the dispute which would accord with Russia’s position. They are part of the ongoing thaw in Russian-Japanese relations, initiated by Prime Minister Abe back in 2013. This process was frozen as a result of Japan joining Western sanctions against Russia in summer 2014, but resumed with Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Sochi at the beginning of May. During this meeting he offered Russia an eight-point plan for developing economic cooperation, in particular the energy sector, and also Japan’s help in developing the Russian Far East (infrastructure, urban planning, medicine, small and medium businesses).
  • The rhetoric and actions of the Japanese side attest to the effectiveness of the Russian policy of ‘carrot and stick’ towards Japan. Moscow has consistently rejected the Japanese approach of making the development of economic relations dependent on a resolution to the Kurils issue before any other moves. Moscow has proposed a reverse logic, according to which successful economic cooperation would be a condition for a settlement of the dispute. Meanwhile, on the one hand Russia has showed its determination to maintain its undivided rule over the Kurils (by developing military infrastructure there, high-profile visits by senior government officials, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev), and has also strengthened its military cooperation with China (the joint entry of Russian warships with a Chinese fleet into the Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago, which are the subject of a Japanese-Chinese dispute; and the announcement of joint naval exercises with China to be carried out in the South China Sea). On the other hand, Russia has indicated that it might be willing to seek a compromise on the issue of the Kurils and demonstrated an interest in joint economic projects. For example, in May Yuri Trutniev, the president’s representative in the Far Eastern Federal District, presented plans in Japan for 29 investment projects with a value of $16 billion. The change in Japan’s policy towards Russia is dictated by Tokyo’s concerns at the rising power of China and a potential Sino-Russian alliance, as well as its doubts as to the determination of the United States to counteract this process.
  • It seems that the announcement of a final date for President Putin’s visit to Japan means that the parties have reached an agreement to step up economic cooperation and strengthen their political relations. Therefore, there is a good chance that during the visit, a detailed programme of economic cooperation will be announced, as well as a formula for how to proceed further regarding the Kurils. Any such agreement will mean that Japan is now conducting a more conciliatory policy towards Russia, one which is more independent of the United States.