China’s New Vassal
How the War in Ukraine Turned Moscow Into Beijing’s Junior Partner
“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 been building almost 2,500 miles of gas pipelines to China. No other Eurasian powers, not even China, have as much sway there.
Despite this reality, the West has essentially treated Russia as a rival European power, largely failing to manage its Eurasian challenges since 2014. As the April 20 NATO-Russia meeting demonstrated, there is no immediate prospect for compromise between Russia and the West when it comes to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia continues to channel its foreign policy energy opportunistically to other parts of Eurasia. Most recently, Moscow has been involved in peace talks following April 2016 clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, expanding its regional sway with serious implications for the Caucasus’ energy corridor to Europe. From Serbia to Afghanistan, Russia is using a combination of energy deals, arms supplies, and covert actions to solidify its stakes in Eurasia’s arc of instability.
The upcoming G-7 summit in Ise-Shima could therefore be an opportune occasion for the West and Japan to find some areas of cooperation with Russia.The West could find a way out of this morass by looking to the other side of Eurasia: Asia, where Russia and the West have no major conflicting interests. Despite the veneer of limited regional clout, Russia is a sizable Asian power and plays an important geopolitical role there. Ironically, it contributes greatly to China’s rise through arms sales and increasing hydrocarbon exports from Siberia. As Beijing’s latest solicitation for Moscow’s support for its South China Sea policies demonstrates, Russia is also emerging as a significant actor in Asian seas, the stability of which is crucial to European economies.
Yet budding Russian-Chinese relations actually mask Moscow’s growing suspicion toward Beijing and its fears of being subordinated to the world’s second-largest economy. Although the Ukrainian crisis has led Moscow to deepen its strategic partnership with Beijing, the West and Russia could foster cooperation over Asia’s most pressing issues, such as the looming North Korean nuclear threat and the rise of China, where Russian and Western interests are aligned.
Japan is in a good position to facilitate cooperation between Russia and the West in Asia and beyond. Despite the inhospitable geopolitical climate since 2014, Abe has cultivated warm personal ties with Putin, culminating in the recent bilateral summit in Sochi. Although the two countries still remain at odds over the settlement of World War II, the chemistry between the two leaders augurs well for better ties in the future.
Also on the side of cooperation are economic realities. Enhanced Russo-Japanese economic ties would open Siberia and the Russian Far East, which lie closer to Japan than to Europe, to the global market for investment. Japanese involvement would also balance against China’s growing presence in the region. Indeed, Abe envisions just that scenario and, in Sochi, presented Putin with a concrete plan for major infrastructure projects in Russia's Asian flank.
For the West, Japan has been a reliable ally, even aligning itself with the United States and Europe on core issues in Ukraine, including sanctions, and forging security relations with eastern European capitals, including Kiev. During Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s Japan tour in April, Abe confirmed Tokyo’s commitment to $1.85 billion in financial support for Kiev as well as various forms of security cooperation, including assistance with the development of Ukrainian cyberpolice. Such efforts reflect Tokyo’s declared strategy for engaging with Moscow, which revolves around dialogue and pressure while avoiding complete isolation of Russia. Japan’s ability to simultaneously deal with Russia and Ukraine across Eurasia as an honest broker is a major asset for the West in improving its future engagement with Moscow.
The upcoming G-7 summit in Ise-Shima could therefore be an opportune occasion for the West and Japan to find some areas of cooperation with Russia. As the G-7 chairman, Abe has considerable authority to set the agenda and determine participants at the summit, including Putin, if the Japanese leader chooses to do so. Leveraging these privileges, Abe should aim to build a G-7 consensus on the need for a gradual restoration of Russia’s place in the international community.
One idea would be to emulate former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s initiative to create a G-7+1 at the 1997 G-7 summit in Naples, during which Russia held informal meetings with member states. Clinton envisaged international cooperation toward Russia’s economic liberalization and laid the foundation for granting observer status to Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. Moscow was ultimately granted full membership in the grouping at the 1998 G-8 summit in Denver. Abe could do much the same.
Russia’s expulsion from the G-8 in 2014 epitomized the West’s disappointment in its failed efforts to integrate its Eurasian neighbor into Europe’s liberal structure. Two years on, Europe itself is in a severe crisis, and the West’s narrow focus on Ukraine has hindered its efforts to cope with Russia’s Eurasian challenges. Asia could hold the key to the Russia problem. Given Abe’s enthusiastic championship of liberal values and his special relationship with Putin, Japan could help save the West by helping reinstate Russia’s position in it.