As relations between Russia and the United States continue to sour, Moscow is trying its luck with other world powers. Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday, before German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan head to Russia next week. Then Putin will travel to China during the week of May 8. Moscow is apparently trying to touch base with the major powers in its periphery — among them some of Washington's biggest allies and adversaries — in anticipation of Putin's first sit-down with U.S. President Donald Trump, expected this summer. In the meantime, Russia is actively engaged in several high-profile issues, from the conflict in Syria to alleged meddling in foreign elections to the brewing crisis in North Korea. The latter will likely serve as a key topic of conversation between Putin and Abe and a chance for Russia to curry favor with Japan.
Moscow and Tokyo have spent much of the past 30 years on the verge of a reconciliation, after more than a century of tension, as their strategic interests have increasingly aligned. Though the two are still in a standoff over the Kuril Islands, Japan is an important component in Russia's strategy to deepen its ties in the Asia-Pacific to compensate for its deteriorating relations with the West. Between 2010 and 2013, Moscow and Tokyo hinted at an incremental agreement that would settle the Kurils dispute in exchange for substantial Japanese investment deals in Russia. But after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and war broke out in eastern Ukraine, Japan joined the West in rebuking Moscow, dashing any hopes of a grand bargain. The two countries have since taken small steps to restore their relationship, for instance by launching joint ventures on the disputed islands and continuing their dialogue.
Pyongyang's nuclear tests have long factored into talks between Russia and Japan, since both countries participated in the Six Party Talks from 2003-07. But today, more than ever, the issue offers Moscow an opportunity to improve its relations with Tokyo. Japan has grown increasingly concerned about regional security and the prospect of a military confrontation with North Korea. Three of the four missiles that Pyongyang launched March 6 fell into the Sea of Japan; the Japanese government later advised its citizens that they may have only 10 minutes' warning should North Korea fire a missile capable of reaching their country. Now that Russia has usurped China as North Korea's closest ally, according to Pyongyang, it has yet another card it can play in negotiations with Japan. As Beijing considers suspending flights to North Korea and cutting its fuel supplies and banking ties to the country at Washington's urging, Moscow could step in to alleviate the pressure on Pyongyang.
This prospect initially became another point of contention between Russia and Japan. From Tokyo's perspective, after all, Moscow's aid would undermine the U.S. and Japanese effort to coerce North Korea into compliance. But Russia could try to spin the issue to its advantage by persuading Japan that interceding on Pyongyang's behalf would prevent a larger crisis from erupting in the region. And as it works to defuse the situation in North Korea, it could also blame the United States and China for creating the crisis in the first place. Russia has the power to either stir or ease tensions, a position it has used to its advantage in the past and one that it could now employ to try to get negotiations with Japan back on track. Moscow will never be the deciding factor on the North Korea issue, as Tokyo well understands. It can, however, act as a spoiler — a role it's playing in so many theaters around the world.