On February 25, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Abe Shinzo, who stepped down as Japanese prime minister in 2020, tweeted: “Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a serious challenge to the international order that we have created since the end of the World War II and must not be allowed. We have to take immediate countermeasures in cooperation with the G7.” During his tenure as Japan’s longest serving head of government (his second term ran from 2012 to 2020), Abe had invested a great deal in his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He visited Russia 11 times, meeting Putin on 27 occasions – not far behind the 38 encounters and counting between Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. With Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine, Abe’s social-media declaration signaled a shift not just in his attitude towards Moscow and Putin but a wholesale change in Japan’s perspective on its neighbor and the Russian strongman.
Over the decades, one of the clearest goals of Japan’s diplomacy has been to resolve its territorial dispute with Russia over the Northern Territories, four islands off the coast of Hokkaido, and signing a World War II peace treaty with Moscow. Abe had tried hard to achieve this objective which would have been a historic achievement for his administration. “Vladimir, you and I see the same future,” Abe told Putin at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2019, entreating the Russian leader to settle the longstanding quarrel between the two countries. “Let's run to the finish line together.” Japan has been extending significant economic assistance to Russia as inducements for Moscow’s cooperation.
But since the invasion of Ukraine, all of these efforts have been suspended. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has been in sync with Abe’s tweet. On March 24, at a G7 summit on Ukraine in Brussels, Kishida conferred with US President Joe Biden before the meeting began, both addressing the other by their first name. “Japan has also shifted its policy towards Russia,” Kishida said. “We would like to strengthen further the Japan-US alliance under the new order.”
The prime minister’s use of the word “shifted” was key. What has actually changed? Over the years, particularly during the Abe administration, though Russia had been criticized and excluded from the G8 due to its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Tokyo’s stance towards Moscow had to some extent differed from Washington’s. Because it had its own diplomatic priority with Russia – the Northern Territories issue and a peace treaty, Japan was always reluctant to join explicit sanctions against Russia. Abe, for example, attended the Eastern Economic Forum hosted by Putin in 2019despite of US opposition.
Now, the Kishida administration has quickly imposed unprecedented sanctions against Russia in full cooperation with other G7 members. The restrictions include financial, trade and visa measures, which the Japanese government has listed in a document, “Japan stands with Ukraine”. In reaction to the policy shift, in late March, the Russian government announced it would halt peace treaty negotiations with Japan, including talks on the Northern Territories issue. “This is extremely unjustified and absolutely unacceptable,” Kishida protested.
But Japan was not surprised by Moscow’s move. In imposing unprecedented sanctions on Russia, in concert with the US and other like-minded nations, Tokyo had essentially abandoned any possibility of making progress towards achieving its chief diplomatic goals. “This is the real shift in Japan’s policy towards Russia – no more strategic ambiguity,” explained a senior diplomat involved in Japan-EU relations at the Japanese ministry of foreign affairs.