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Is Putin Preparing a Breakthrough in Relations with Japan?

Having regained Crimea, Putin may be in a position to grant Japan territoral concessions in the disputed Kuril Islands, paving the way for rapprochement with Tokyo

This article originally appeared at Valdai Club

For many weeks now, the media and the Western political community have been focused on the European unity that has been fractured by the planned extension of anti-Russian sectoral economic sanctions. The sanctions were approved last summer and may be lifted on July 31, 2015. At least seven EU member states are openly critical of the sanctions, including Cyprus, Greece, Spain and Italy in southern Europe, and Austria, Hungary and Slovakia from the former Habsburg Empire. The Kremlin for its part has been using the divide-and-rule tactics directed at deepening the cleavage.

But Russia is not only making moves in Europe; it is also trying to strengthen its positions in the BRICS group and with major regional players such as Iran, Egypt and Turkey. Russia’s main trading partner, China, is a key player in Moscow’s efforts to balance the foreign policy stage. At the same time, some analysts believe that Moscow has been trying to weaken Europe’s standing in Asia, its “target” being Japan.

Russian-Japanese relations are complicated. The unsettled territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands is hampering rapprochement that would make sense, considering both nations’ economic complementarity and the rise of China. Japan has limited room for maneuvering due to its military alliance with the United States. Paradoxically, Russian-Japanese tensions increased under Dmitry Medvedev, whom the pro-Putin part of society blamed for leniency in the Libyan crisis. Japan harshly criticized the Kremlin for Medvedev’s visit to the Kuril Islands and plans to establish a Russian naval base there.

That being said, the current situation looks good for a diplomatic breakthrough that could turn into a tectonic shift in Northeast Asia. There are at least three reasons why the Kremlin would be tempted to choose this policy: a desire to win over a key member of the Western community, which would deliver a blow to US prestige; the hidden but very real fear that the rapprochement with China is moving too fast and could go too far; and lastly, the opportunity to attract large Japanese investments to Siberia and other Russian regions.

The Crimean crisis has contributed to the change as well. Having “regained” Crimea, Putin may more easily agree to concessions on other disputed territories, like he did in relations with China in 2004 and with Norway in 2010. The internal political obstacles that prevented President Yeltsin from implementing a similar initiative in 1992 have been removed. Alarmed by Russian-Chinese rapprochement, Japan could be willing to take resolute steps. It may be a coincidence, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel spent a long time in early March trying to convince Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to extend anti-Russian sanctions.

According to recent reports, Vladimir Putin plans to visit Tokyo in summer. The game is not over yet.

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