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Handshakes and Handoffs: Lessons to Learn from Abe’s Russian Legacy

When he stepped down as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in August 2020, Shinzo Abe highlighted the long-term political tensions between Japan and Russia since the mid-20th century. Russia had clearly been a focal point for Abe’s international agenda for close to a decade, and his successor, Yoshihide Suga, is expected to continue pursuing new relations with Russia at a time when regional geopolitical tensions are on the rise.

Under Suga’s leadership, Japanese interest in furthering relations with Russia is likely to lose steam. Although Suga had been known for defending Japan’s territorial claim while serving as Chief Cabinet Secretary  and reaffirmed interests to resolve the Japan-Russia political dispute as prime minister, there has nonetheless been a lack of ongoing negotiations in the digitalized era of diplomacy. That reveals a growing bilateral disinterest and diminishing importance of salvaging the Russia-Japan relationship.

Still, the legacy of World War II continues to weigh on Russo-Japanese ties. While economic opportunities in bilateral relations are promising, the yet-unsigned Peace Treaty of 1956 remains the biggest stumbling block, immobilizing the re-distribution of the territorial sovereignty of the Kuril Islands off the eastern coast of Russia, referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan. Meanwhile, Russia under Vladimir Putin has continued to claim the islands as its own, with former Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev naming them “an important region” of Russia in his multiple personal visits to the area.

Since 2020, Japan has jumped at the chance to assert a more global presence to address cross-border challenges. Outlining a carbon-neutral goal for 2050 and pursuing digitalization of government policies reflects a recent wave of change that has gripped Tokyo. Hence 2021 presents an optimal opportunity for the Suga administration to learn from Shinzo Abe’s unique relationship with Russia, furthering Japanese interests beyond the economic relationship before the election.

Looking ahead, there are five lessons Suga should learn from Abe’s Russian legacy.

Lesson One: Have a Plan

Shinzo Abe’s relationship with Vladimir Putin remained stagnate from 2012 until his May 2016 meeting with the Russian President in Moscow. It was at this exchange when Abe’s administration produced the first proposed eight-point plan by the Japanese Government to better relations and cooperation between the two countries called “We are Tomodachi (friends)”. Although the eight points avoided the territorial dispute issue and focused on elements apart from the fundamentals of Japan-Russia cooperation in the energy sector, they transcended diplomatic relations and encouraged better cooperation on social issues such as healthcare exchange.

Prime Minister Suga’s Cabinet offers an opportunity to create a roadmap of Japan-Russia relations independent of his political term and that of President Putin. Cooperation in the Arctic region, for example, can present opportunities for joint data exchange and technological development, but must be assigned benchmark dates. Without a writing understanding of potential areas for cooperation, Japan is unlikely to get Russia’s attention.

Lesson Two: Grab Your Passport

Abe’s pursuit of improving Japan-Russia relations was heavily demonstrated by the Japanese leader’s consistent attempts to engage in one-on-one meetings with Putin around the world. Throughout his premiership, Abe traveled to international meetings such as the G7 Summit, APEC Forum, and the ASEAN-Russia Summit, consistently meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the events. However, Abe also traveled multiple years in a row to Vladivostok to the Eastern Economic Forum, demonstrating his interest in seeking out opportunities to intersect with President Putin.

In the post-COVID age of diplomacy, demonstrating a willingness to travel to discuss political developments has become difficult. However, the increased degree of digitalization present in today’s governments has opened new doors for digital diplomacy. Japan-Russia relations and issues can now be discussed via teleconferences that allow governments to include experts, ministers, and relevant diplomatic officials in the conversations. Suga’s government, particularly spearheaded by the veteran Minister of Finance Taro Aso, has the opportunity to ride the digitalization wave into cooperation negotiations with an otherwise inaccessible Moscow.

Lesson Three: Money Matters

Despite Abe’s attempts to engage in cooperation with Russia on social issues, joint economic development remained at the forefront of the relationship until his resignation. In spite of geographic proximity and the relative scale of their economies, trade between Japan and Russia remains comparatively low in 2021, less than 4 percent of the amount between Japan and China, with the energy sector dominating FDI flows from Japan to Russia at around 70 percent.  Through immense joint projects such as Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2, Russia supplies around 10 percent of Japan’s LNG, oil, and coal imports in its domestic energy mix, cementing it as one of Japan’s most important energy import partners, making Russia an inseparable presence in Japan’s national security.

Making economic cooperation the forefront of Suga’s attempts toward reconciliation, particularly the further development of join LNG projects in Eastern Russia and the Arctic, is the only hope for discussion amidst a political gridlock in a post-COVID-19 world. As Suga’s term likely comes to an end in 2021, considering increasingly negative ratings, Japan must take a more proactive role in energy investment in Russia, particularly considering its incredibly low self-sufficiency rate.

Lesson Four: Family First

For Abe, relations with Russia were also personal.  His father Shintaro’s personal intellectual proximity to Russia and Russian leaders such as Gorbachev is noted, and Shintaro Abe’s wish was known to be the resolution and return of the four Kuril Islands. Shinzo Abe, who had accompanied his father on diplomatic trips to Russia, was likely heavily influenced by his father’s ambitions.

Prime Minister Suga’s disadvantage is his lack of personal touch or a diplomatic partner in Russia to help emphasize the importance of the bilateral relationship. As such, Suga must compensate by making the return of the Northern Territories a priority of his remaining months in his foreign policy agenda rather than leaving the issue for the next Prime Minister of Japan. In particular, under the new Biden administration, the role of the United States, or rather its lack of role in the Kuril Islands can become an excellent catalyst for negotiations concerning concessions in the four islands.

Lesson Five: Smile for the Camera

Part of Abe’s appeal since his reelection in 2012 came from his ability to engage with international leaders, demonstrating enthusiasm and charisma that separated him from his predecessors. Like former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Abe often made attempts to speak to world leaders in English, as well as conduct bilateral discussion on the sides of international forums. Such was the case with Russia, as Abe’s visits to Russia to speak with Putin, as well as his efforts to create a positive, international persona contributed to the success of the Japan-Russia relationship by keeping it in the view of the public.

Although Yoshihide Suga is not known for his public charisma, other Ministers in his Cabinet such as Taro Aso and Shinjiro Koizumi boast excellent English skills and experience at public forums and with global leaders. Hence, increasing their roles in the diplomatic dimension of negotiations between Japan and Russia can substitute for the Prime Minister’s lack of public appeal and compensate for the high degree of publicity associated with Abe and his personal relationships.

There is much to do to facilitate an improvement in Russia-Japan relations. Under Prime Minister Abe, the relationship reached a climax, rooted in Abe’s unique personality and connection to Russia. Without a fundamental reevaluation of existent diplomatic tools in Japan and lessons learned from past successes, the issue of Japan-Russia relations will continue to be cyclically swept under the Japanese foreign policy rug for decades to come.

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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Anastasia Gracheva

Program Intern, Asia Program

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more