Ukraine War: The Impact on Japan-Russia Relations

Insights from Jeffrey Hornung.

By Mercy A. Kuo

May 16, 2022


The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Dr. Jeffrey Hornung, senior political scientist at RAND Corporation, is the 319th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”


Identify the top three impacts of the Ukraine war on Japan-Russia relations.

During the Abe Shinzo administration, Japan engaged Russia quite actively in its dual pursuit of seeking a breakthrough in their bilateral territorial dispute as well attempting to keep Russia from getting strategically closer to China. Russia’s invasion changed both quite fundamentally, causing a fundamental rethink of Japan’s Russia policy.

First, making a sharp break from the previous decade-worth of engagement to resolve the territorial dispute over the Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands (Northern Territories in Japan), the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ 2022 Diplomatic Bluebook now describes the four islands as “illegally occupied by Russia,” using language not seen since 2003. This, along with Russia officially pulling out of all peace talks with Japan due to its unfriendly position means there is zero hope of a peace treaty or resolution of the territorial dispute.

Resolution of the territorial issue played into an area where a second change occurred. The strategic thinking in Tokyo was that once a peace treaty was made, Japan could normalize relations with Russia in a way that could prevent Moscow from forging a united front against Japan. By sanctioning Russian banks, institutions, and individuals, including Putin himself, and having sent non-lethal aid to Ukraine, this strategic calculus by Tokyo is a second casualty, as Japan has lost any leverage over Russia it may have had. The fear now is that Russia’s increasing isolation may push Moscow into Beijing’s orbit, causing a severe strategic headache for Tokyo.

A third area of change is the economic relationship. As part of Japan’s efforts to achieve the aforementioned objectives, for many years Tokyo has poured investments into Russia’s Far East. During the Abe administration, he even attended Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok several times. With Japan pulling back from Russia, these economic relations have largely fallen apart.


Examine Tokyo’s calculus of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s refusal to condemn the invasion in the context of China-Japan relations.

Japanese policymakers and security experts are watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a means by which to draw lessons on how to ensure the future of Japan’s own security. Japan has long attached great importance to free trade and universal values like democracy, rule of law, and human rights, but it is only since 2016 that it has packaged its advocacy of these things in a broadly appealing concept called the free and open Indo-Pacific. Although Russia’s war against Ukraine is in Europe, Japan is viewing the actions by one autocracy and drawing conclusions on what its neighboring autocracies could do in the Indo-Pacific region.

Although Japan is surrounded by Russia, North Korea and China, China’s decades-long quest to occupy Taiwan has drawn it into sharper focus out of fear that China may try something similar to what Russia is doing in Ukraine. In other words, Japanese elites are looking at what is happening to Ukraine and  ̶  drawing analogues from Russia to China  ̶  fearing that it could happen to any country anywhere in the world; namely, a larger and much more powerful neighbor could attempt to change the status quo of the Indo-Pacific by force, thereby adversely affecting Japan’s security. In turn, this is affecting how Japan is looking at its own defense posture and spending as well as the current work being done on Japan’s new National Security Strategy and National Defense Program Guidelines.


What calculations if Japan making vis-a-vis China-U.S. geostrategic competition?

Since 2016, Japan has been advocating for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, a concept that has become a driving strategic guidepost for many regional countries, including the United States. Yet, Japan’s concern is not limited strictly to the Indo-Pacific, as it is broadly concerned about sustaining the current international order. It is through this lens that it draws linkages between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chinese activities, and the growing U.S.-China geostrategic competition. Tokyo is active in the international effort against Russia because it is concerned not only with how it will impact the Indo-Pacific, but whether it will have any adverse effects on U.S. alliance commitments, extended deterrence, and whether China will try to take advantage of a distracted United States. Based on this concern, it is not only seeking ways to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance, but bilateral strategic relations with other key U.S. allies, like Australia, the U.K., and France.


Analyze the internal debate among Japan’s political leadership and implications for Japan’s nuclear posture.      

While the invasion has not caused Japan to seek any new capabilities, it has amplified calls for a more robust defense to counter threats from regional countries. One of these calls was from former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo calling for nuclear sharing of U.S. nuclear weapons in Japan. Prime Minister Kishida, however, rejected this call.

While Japan’s nuclear posture is not changing, there are noticeable changes occurring in other parts of Japan’s defense policies. For example, Japan’s provision of bulletproof vests, helmets, protective masks and clothing against chemical weapons, and other nonlethal equipment may seem trivial, but for Japan sending military equipment to a country like Ukraine  ̶  marking the first such delivery  ̶  signaled a major new step, one that has been difficult for Japan to take heretofore due to constraints stemming from its constitution.


Assess the effectiveness of Japan’s sanctions on Russia and coordination with the U.S. and other G-7 allies in responding to the conflict in Ukraine.

Historically, Japan has not actively relied on sanctions in its foreign relations. Therefore, Japan’s joining with other Group of Seven countries in imposing sanctions against Russia was impressive, both in its nature and speed. This alignment with the West and visible support to uphold the existing U.S.-led international order represents a more proactive foreign policy.


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