“I will find Shinzo in Vladivostok with these," Russian President Vladimir Putin remarked when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented him with high-quality binoculars from his country during an unofficial summit in Sochi on May 6. After more than a two-year break in bilateral summits, the two leaders finally met each other this month and agreed to a new approach to stalled Russo-Japanese relations, including another Abe-Putin summit in Vladivostok scheduled for this coming September.
Putin's eagerness to schedule a second meeting—to find Abe in Vladivostok—betrayed a desperate need for Japanese investment in Russia’s neglected Asian hinterland. Meanwhile, Abe must have his sights set on a larger geopolitical agenda: his desire to turn Japan into a bridge between Russia and the West.
Abe arrived in Sochi with a sense of historic purpose. At the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit just a month earlier, U.S. President Barack Obama had commented that “I’ll leave it to Shinzo,” in reference to Abe’s enthusiastic pursuit of a rapprochement with Russia. A month before, Obama had uncharacteristically objected to the Japanese leader’s Russia agenda by asking him to cancel his latest summit with Putin. When Abe visited five major European countries—Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom—en route to Sochi, he found regional leaders too preoccupied with the continent’s own economic problems to remain united against the geopolitical problem to its immediate east.
Europe’s growing introversion and Obama’s own apparent reversal revealed an emerging geopolitical reality: no Western leader knows quite what to do about Russia as it wields its strategic influence across Eurasia. This leaves an opening for Abe to build bridges between Russia and the West at the upcoming G-7 summit in Japan later this month.
Russia, declining as it might be, is yet a serious Eurasian power to be reckoned with. It can still unilaterally shape geopolitical events across the region, including in eastern Ukraine, Syria, and even Northeast Asia, where it has
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