For Abe, his push to improve ties with Moscow has become even more urgent since securing a historic third term in September 2018. With a firm hold on power and little appetite for further delays, Abe has set an ambitious goal of concluding the treaty by the time Putin and the other G-20 heads of state convene in Japan for their summit. To meet that target, he is counting on his lengthy tenure and domestic political strength to help him avoid some of the shifting domestic policy priorities that have derailed previous efforts under predecessor governments.
Abe, meanwhile, is looking to cement his legacy. By resolving one of Japan's biggest lingering diplomatic issues of the postwar era ahead of upper house elections in July, he could ease the way toward completing his other unfinished objectives, such as revising the country's pacifist constitution. But as before, his overtures to Russia are a risky gambit. Moscow has shown little willingness to compromise over possession of the Kuril Islands, which it captured from Japan in World War II, and instead has hardened its position over retaining sovereignty over the entire chain. The growing gulf between Japan and Russia over sovereignty issues and the future arrangement of the islands have lengthened the odds against a successful negotiation, given Abe's stated timetable.
High Hopes, Little Progress
As the Cold War was winding down, it became obvious to both countries that their aligning strategic interests would dictate the need for a closer partnership. The Soviet Union in its death throes was trying to break its isolation by the West and inject life into its ailing economy. After its collapse, post-Soviet Russia was left trying to pick up the pieces, and it saw a breakthrough with Tokyo as a more urgent priority. At that time, Moscow proved willing to make concessions to at least partially meet Japan's territorial demands over the Kuril Islands. But mismatched priorities and the turnover of government in both countries, not to mention Tokyo's insistence on a wholesale return of all four of the disputed islands before it would agree to a peace treaty, doomed those efforts. The issue would lay dormant for more than a decade, but both countries revived hopes for talks after Abe's rise to power in 2012. In the ensuing years, however, not only had the geopolitical landscape changed, but so had their relative negotiation positions.
With an expanding China on its doorstep and a unified stance between the two Koreas blossoming, Tokyo has found itself in need of a stronger partnership with Russia to offset its growing disadvantage in Northeast Asia. In part, strong relations with Moscow would help Tokyo counterbalance the tentative alignment between China and Russia, and further expand Japan's access into the energy- and resource-rich Russian Far East, where the Chinese presence has expanded. For Russia, stronger ties with Japan can help it in its efforts to balance against the United States in the Pacific and weaken the unified front of U.S. allies pressuring Moscow. Moreover, Russia could certainly use increased Japanese investment to shore up its ailing economy and counter China's growing economic influence in its Far East.
But unlike Japan, territorial issues and a peace treaty are a far lower priority for Moscow. From Moscow's point of view, bilateral relations have endured without the treaty for more than 70 years, and thus far, weak Japanese investment into Russia has offered few practical gains. With the history of Japanese control of the disputed islands long in the past and its own strategy to solidify control of the islands through military and economic development means well underway, Russia sees little desire or urgency to compromise, even to reach a limited deal. And with the Crimea crisis fresh in the memory, Putin — who is also facing economic weakness and an eroding domestic support base — feels he is in no position to make significant territorial concessions without extracting bigger concessions from Japan.
The growing list of strategic interests that Russia and Japan share have formed the basis for their incrementally elevated bilateral relationship over the past few years. But the familiar stumbling blocks of mismatched priorities and intransigence over ceding sovereignty that have prevented progress in solving their territorial dispute, therefore blocking agreement on a formal World War II peace treaty, have not changed. But recently, hope for progress has increased. In two face-to-face meetings since November — two months after Abe’s most recent electoral victory — both Abe and Putin have vowed to accelerate the negotiations for peace talks and create a new negotiation format, designating their diplomats to take charge of the process. The two leaders agreed in principle to frame their negotiation on the basis of 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which stipulates that Russia would transfer the two smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai after the conclusion of a peace treaty.
Abe and some of his predecessors mulled a similar negotiation position in the past. Yet, by adhering to the 1956 Joint Declaration as his baseline, Abe is signaling that he is more willing to alter Tokyo's previously inflexible stance, developing expectations that Japanese negotiators would make a sincere effort to reach a compromise. Meanwhile, given the history of progress in negotiations being disrupted by internal Japanese political chaos or political transitions to leaders returning to hard-line stances, Abe has striven to establish himself as the best option for concluding a peace treaty in the near term; after all, he must concede power in September 2021.
The Hard Part Begins
It is important to keep in mind that with the establishment of the negotiations baseline, Tokyo and Moscow have merely returned to the same point they started at decades ago. Indeed, if Abe's eagerness to conclude a deal is any indication, it's Putin's willingness to show flexibility that will be the deciding variable in whether the negotiations can begin with a fresh expectation of success.
Unsurprisingly, pre-negotiation prospects for progress appear dim. Even as Japan has been publicly optimistic about a deal, Russia has hit back against what it sees as overeager Japanese statements about their expectations of how much Russia may be willing to compromise. Given the heightened Russian sensitivity to sovereignty issues since its 2014 annexation of Crimea, Putin will tread carefully to avoid a public backlash at a time when his domestic approval ratings are trending downward. There is a strong consensus in the Russian public against any transfer of territory to Japan. According to a recent poll, more than 3 in 4 Russians are opposed to any island deal. This, in part, explains Moscow's hard-line position. During Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's recent meeting with his Japanese counterpart, he set out the expectation that Russia's first condition would be Japan's full recognition of the outcome of World War II, including its acknowledgement of Russian sovereignty over all the islands. As a result, even if Russia transferred control over the two smaller islands in accordance with the 1956 declaration, their sovereignty would ultimately remain with Russia.
That precondition represents a nonstarter for the Japanese public. With that as its position, Russia has left room to put even more demands on the table, potentially requiring that U.S. troops be barred from Shikotan and Habomai even after a transfer and that Tokyo rethink its approach of welcoming U.S. missile defense infrastructure there. These demands reflect Moscow's concern that any compromise between Japan and the United States far outweigh its hopes of balancing Japan against China and driving a wedge between Japan and the United States. Russia has historically been sensitive about ceding any ground on sovereignty that could lead to an expansion of U.S. bases and missile facilities. But the door may not completely shut, either. According to the Japanese news agency Kyodo, both countries are reportedly considering the possibility of including in the peace treaty a special clause on security guarantees stating that both sides will refrain from hostile military actions against each other, implying that the negotiation remains open. After all, the revelation of these demands reveals the mismatch of positions and aims held by both Japan and Russia over the islands, and therefore, just how much Abe might need to put on the table to achieve his desired breakthrough. The problem is, time may be running out for Abe.