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A nation must think before it acts.
Technically, Japan and Russia are still at war. Although Japan surrendered to the Allies in September 1945, ending World War II, Moscow and Tokyo have never signed an official peace treaty. A territorial dispute over four islands between Japan’s home island of Hokkaidō and Russia’s Kuril Islands has bedeviled bilateral ties ever since.
In March 2022, those ties became even chillier. Russia suspended peace-treaty negotiations with Japan after Tokyo slapped economic sanctions on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida responded by condemning Russia’s decision as “extremely unreasonable and totally unacceptable.” Japan-Russia relations seemed to be at a new low.
But not so long ago, a rapprochement between Moscow and Tokyo appeared like a distinct possibility. For most of the 2010s, one of Kishida’s predecessors, Shinzō Abe, had pushed for a “new approach” to Russia—one that aimed to resolve their longstanding territorial dispute and thereby pave the way to a peace treaty. By improving relations with Russia, Abe sought to enable Japan to shift its security focus to a rising danger in the south, China. Unfortunately for Abe, his new approach would ultimately fall short, largely because Japan lacked enough leverage to motivate Russia to come to terms.
However, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has triggered such a severe response from the United States and most of its allies in Europe and Asia that, in time, may create the leverage that Japan needs to entice Russia back to the negotiation table to settle their territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty. Though Japan’s use of that leverage would weaken the U.S.-led economic sanctions against Russia, doing so could improve America’s position in the Indo-Pacific in the long run.
The territorial dispute between Japan and Russia has its origins in the closing days of World War II, when the Soviet Union seized the islands of Etorofu, Habomai, Kunashiri, and Shikotan—off the northern tip of Hokkaidō and at the southern end of Russia’s Kuril Islands. Russia has controlled them ever since, calling them the Southern Kuril Islands. For its part, Japan has argued that the islands are part of its Hokkaidō prefecture and refers to them as the Northern Territories. That dispute has kept the two countries at odds for almost eighty years.
Past efforts to settle the dispute failed to make much headway. But, in 2012, Abe made improving relations between Japan and Russia one of his top priorities. He began by setting up a combined foreign and defense ministerial meeting between the two countries, an unprecedented move at the time. Abe also started a sustained effort to woo Russian President Vladimir Putin. He would eventually meet with his Russian counterpart twenty-seven times over his seven-year tenure as prime minister. (At one meeting, Abe went so far as to offer Putin a puppy.)
Abe’s engagement was part of his new approach to Russia, one that sought to push forward peace-treaty negotiations using economic incentives. In 2016, Abe offered Russia an eight-point economic cooperation plan, which included joint development of Russian oil and natural gas fields, Japanese support for the infrastructure improvement of a Russian city, and a Japanese loan to Russia’s Sberbank. To underscore his seriousness, Abe attended Russia’s annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok every year from 2016 to 2019. For a time, this approach seemed to work. In early 2019, Japan and Russia agreed to use the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration, which envisioned Russia relinquishing two of the four disputed islands and Japan abandoning its claims to the other two, as the basis for their negotiations.
What prompted Abe’s “new approach” to Russia? In short: China. By the early 2010s, China had become militarily powerful, after having boosted its defense budget by an average of 15 percent a year for the prior fifteen years. It also embraced a more assertive foreign policy, especially with respect to the Japanese-occupied Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Tokyo sensed the growing danger and sought to shift its security focus southward. Over the next decade, Japan would build new missile and radar bases on the Ryukyu Islands, and practice the redeployment of tens of thousands of troops from Hokkaidō, facing north towards Russia, to Kyushu, facing south towards China, in its largest military exercise since the Cold War.
Japan’s concern over China could also be seen in Abe’s keenness to invigorate the Quad, a loose coalition of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, as a way to balance China’s growing power in the Indo-Pacific. More recently, that concern has led Japan to rethink some of its longstanding policies. In 2021, its defense minister openly wondered whether the time had come for Tokyo to stand up to Beijing’s pressure on Taiwan and protect the island. And a year later, Japan’s ruling party rolled out a proposal to sharply increase the government’s defense spending from one percent of gross domestic product to closer to two percent.
It seems probable that Abe wanted to conclude a peace treaty with Russia so that Japan could free up resources to deal with China. And, while it may have been overly optimistic of him, Abe may also have hoped that warmer relations between Japan and Russia could turn it into a counterweight to China in Northeast Asia or, at the very least, make it harder for Beijing to persuade Moscow to join a united front against Japan.
At the start of Abe’s engagement efforts, Russia appeared amenable. After all, Russia was in a tough spot at the time, laboring under Western economic sanctions that were imposed on it after its 2014 invasion of Ukraine. That gave Moscow incentive to negotiate. Japan’s economic overtures were no doubt welcome. But, as time passed, Russia’s dire economic situation eased. By 2018, the Russian economy had returned to reasonably healthy growth at 2.8 percent. Plus, by then, tensions with the United States over trade had pushed China closer to Russia. Surely, Russia must have seen a rising China, rather than American-allied Japan, as the safer bet.
Meanwhile, without continued economic or political pressure, Russia lost the motivation to quickly settle its territorial dispute with Japan. After all, Moscow controlled all four islands and, since the mid-2010s, had been bolstering its military forces in the Kuril Islands with new air and coastal defense missile batteries. Ultimately, Abe’s eight-point economic cooperation plan was not enticing enough for Russia to change the status quo or give up its political leverage over Japan, a key American ally. Thus, despite high hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough when Abe and Putin met to negotiate in late 2018, Japan’s window to conclude a peace treaty might have already shut. By the time Abe left office two years later, Japan and Russia were barely closer to a deal than in previous talks.
Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has the potential to change all that. The West’s economic pressure on Russia has been far more intense in 2022 than in 2014. And early on, Japan joined Western efforts to punish Russia. Beyond sanctioning Putin-friendly business and political figures, Japan froze the assets of several Russian banks, including Promsvyazbank and VTB Bank, and barred them from offering new securities in Japan. Tokyo also prohibited the purchase of Russian government bonds and the export of defense or oil-refining equipment to Russia. In early March, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida resumed using the term “inherent territory” to describe the Northern Territories, backtracking on one of Abe’s concessions that was intended to avoid antagonizing Russia. Then, in April, Tokyo expelled several Russian diplomats and trade officials and revoked Russia’s most-favored nation trading status.
As frosty as Japan-Russia relations have become, they may yet thaw in the future. The intense economic pressure that the West put on Russia in 2022 could eventually change Moscow’s calculus on the territorial dispute with Japan. Tokyo’s economic incentives, which Moscow once considered insufficient, might become more appealing. And negotiations with Japan, which Moscow once regarded as secondary to its relationship with China, might seem like a good way to politically divide the Western countries arrayed against it. All of that would give Japan more leverage than it had in earlier years.
Of course, none of that guarantees that such negotiations will be successful. For one thing, China, which has an interest in keeping Japan and Russia apart, would likely act to restrain Russia from such a rapprochement. For another, Russia, as cynics of Abe’s overtures would no doubt argue, might require more concessions before concluding a peace treaty with Japan.
As dim as relations between Japan and Russia have become, they are not hopeless. Japan did not entirely cut itself off from Russia. While Tokyo banned the import of Russian coal, it did not stop purchases of Russian oil and natural gas. More interestingly, in April, Japan struck a new deal with Russia over salmon and trout fishing quotas.
The tighter Western economic sanctions against Russia are, the more leverage Japan has, especially if China and Russia were to fall out as they did during the Cold War. Although Kishida may have little interest in talking to Russia now, Japan might find itself in a better position to do so in the future. Naturally, doing so too soon would run the risk of irritating Japan’s Western allies, particularly the United States. But Tokyo could argue that, going forward, it would benefit Washington to have Japan focused on China, rather than looking over its shoulder at Russia. In the meantime, Tokyo would do well to encourage others to turn the screws on Moscow just a bit more.
 Gabriel Dominguez, “Japan dismayed at Russia’s missile deployment to disputed islands, says report,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, November 25, 2016.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.