The Japanese Host the Russians: Can They Expand Their Security and Defense Relationship?


2013-11-11 By Su Wang

In November 2, Russia and Japan held their first 2+2 meeting in Tokyo.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and their Japanese counterparts Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera attended the meeting.

This meeting was initially decided when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia in this April.

Abe was the first Japanese Prime Minister that visited Russia in the last 10 years.

Before this, Japan only had such 2+2 meeting mechanism with its close ally the U.S. and Australia.[1]

What’s more, in the last 7 months Abe and Russian President Putin had met for 4 times in different occasions, such a high frequent leaders’ exchange also indicates the two countries’ rapid warming bilateral relations.

In the 2+2 meeting, the two countries reached a series of agreements, and strengthened their security ties. This included holding joint naval drill for anti-piracy and counterterrorism, and deepening their cooperation in cyber security.[2]

But how far can the security and defense relationship go in light of the clear limits upon that relationship?

Russia and Japan have never signed a Peace Treaty to end formally World War II. What then is the focus of this re-opening and why is it occurring now?

(For a EuroNews overview on the meeting see the following video:)

Russia’s Asia Pacific Strategy

To answer this question, we must first review Russia’s Asia policy and the main goals it wants to achieve.

Russia’s strategy in the Asia Pacific region includes three priorities:

To restore Russia’s status as a great power;

To modernize its economy, especially its Far East area;

and to serve its domestic political goals.[3]

Japan plays an important role in at least first two goals.

To ensure the reestablishment of its status as a great power, in the Asia Pacific, it is Russia’s interest to balance China’s influence as it is rising as a one of the strongest economic and military power in the region. And Japan, as the third biggest economy in the world, is undoubtedly a good choice for Russia to constrain China.

Although Russia and China are strategic partners, it is clearly not a strong marriage.[4] The main means for Russia to influence China is in the field of energy.  But clearly China is seeking to reduce its dependence upon Russia in this area.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visited Central Asian countries this October and proposed to build a new Silk Road economic belt.  And the Russians clearly go the message and saw this  as China not only penetrating into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence, but also trying to diverse its oil and natural gas resources, which would reduce China’s energy dependence on Russia.

It is undoubtedly that over time Russia’s influence to China would constantly decline. Many analysts believe that a very important reason for Russia to strengthen security cooperation with Japan is for countering China and sending a signal to it.[5]

Moreover, Russia needs to modernize its economy, especially the underdeveloped Far East region. Japan plays a role of main investor and technology provider in Russia’s development.

According to Russia’s official document, Japan’s cumulative direct investment to Russia economy reached $10.7 billion in 2012, and it is one of the top 10 leaders of foreign investment in Russia. And exporting natural resources and energy to Japan is also an important source of revenue for Russia. Over 98% of Japan’s imports from Russia were crude oil, LNG, and oil products and so on.[6]

Thus, Japan is important for Russia in its Asia Pacific policy.

On one hand, cooperating with Japan can help to contain China, while on the other hand, Japan is an important market for Russia’s energy export, especially as China’s energy dependence on Russia would diminish over time.

Nonetheless, expanding security and defense cooperation will not be easy.

Russia-Japan Relations: Tough Love

Although World War II has ended for nearly 70 years, what strange is Russia and Japan, as two of major powers in the region, never signed a peace treaty, which means they are in de jure still at the state of war.

The main obstacle to signing a peace treaty is their dispute over a strings of islands north of Japan, which Russia calls Kurils Islands, while Japan names Northern Territories.

Although these islands were occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and became parts of it and then that of its successor the Russian Federation, in accordance to UN charter and all international documents, Japan still claims its ownership to the islands.[7] Russia always propose to negotiate peace treaty without preconditions,[8] But Japan insists that would happen only after Russia returns the islands.[9]

It is not likely that Japan’s wish would be met in foreseeable future. It is doubtful that Russia will do so.

The Kurils Islands are considered by the Russians to be strategically important.

The ocean around there is rich in fish, and the shelf areas of the islands are believed to have substantial oil and gas reserves.[10] And more significantly, once the islands were returned to Japan, Russia would face risks of foreign military presence there, which would threaten its Pacific Fleet.

The Russians and Japanese recently held a major meeting in Tokyo which encompassed security and defense as well. How far can the relationship go? Credit Photo:  Xinhua
The Russians and Japanese recently held a major meeting in Tokyo which encompassed security and defense as well. How far can the relationship go? Credit Photo: Xinhua

As long as Russia holds the territory, it is able to prevent any foreign navy from entering the Sea of Okhotsk.[11]

The Russians have gone to great lengths to support their claims. In Russia’s official statement of Russia-Japan relations, it calls Japan’s claims on the islands’ ownership “groundless”,[12] and Russian officials keep stressing the sovereignty of the islands is “unquestionable”,[13] and the Russian government’s stance remains “unchanged” in different occasions.[14]

Russia also repeatedly argues the dispute should be solved under the framework of UN charter, which is exactly the document that confirms Russia’s ownership to the islands, and ever comments Tokyo’s doubt to Russia’s sovereignty over the islands as “unacceptable”.[15] Russia holds the disputes should be negotiated in a clam atmosphere, without being influenced by emotions and politics, and to avoid public discussions,[16] these are undoubtedly aiming to distract Japan’s attention and keep Russia’s control to the islands.

When Ichita Yamamoto, the Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs publicly discussed the dispute over the Kurils Islands and said there was a “need to return territories” after visiting there this past September, Russia threatened to restrict Japanese officials’ entering to the islands if they cannot stop themselves from “making public statements.”[17]

Then in November of 2010, Medvedev, as Russian president, visited the Kurils Islands and became the first (Soviet) Russian leader to visit the disputed territory. In the July of 2012, as Russian Prime Minister, he paid the second visit to the island. Although this led to Japan’s angry response, Medvedev said he “is not interested in what Japan has to say about his visit to the South Kurils.”[18]

Clearly neither Russia nor Japan are on the same page with regard to the future of the Islands. It is clear that in the Russian view, they do not need to return the Kurils Islands to Japan in order to have a new phase in their relatonship. Although it really needs Japan to contain China, and more importantly, to invest Russia’s economy and provide technology assistance, Russian politicians are able to achieve such goals without paying the costs of the Kurils Islands.

For the Japanese, the expanded relationship is in part a means to the end to the return of the islands. Japan always hopes to improve the mutual trust and create a friendly atmosphere by pushing economic cooperation first, assuming that after their overall relations have been strengthened by deepened economic connection, Russia would return the islands.[19]

The bargain between Japan and Russia is like a revised prisoner dilemma in which Japan can only choose “cooperation.” Because its demand to Russia’s energy is rigid, 98% of Japan’s import from Japan are energy and resources, and in short term it is hard for Japan to find other alternative resource provider, this is the case especially after the earth quake in and the Fukushima nuclear accident following it in 2011, which caused the shutdown of almost all nuclear plants in Japan and lack of energy.[20]

Thus Japan has to keep its investment to Russia in oil and gas exploration and pipeline construction, which would, in turn, substantially contributed to the economic development of Russia.

In Abe’s visit to Russia in April of this year, the Russian Energy Ministry and Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry signed a package of energy cooperation deals, it was reported that “Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Japan Bank of International Cooperation would invest $500 million in each for a joint projects in Russia’s Far East and Eastern Siberia, high-tech health research, alternative energy, infrastructure and the so-called ‘smart Cities.”[21]

For Russian leaders, they believe they would pay a domestic political cost for any return of the islands. Most Russian people oppose to return the Kurils Islands to Japan,[22] and an initiative the Youth Department of the United Russia Party proposed to give the Kurils Islands Russian name gained more than 90% of Russians’ support.[23]

Thus, in such a prisoner dilemma game in which Japan has no other alternative but to chooses “cooperation”, it is Russia’s interest to keep choosing “defection”, which would maximize its benefits.

So, it is almost certain that Russia would not compromise.

How about Japan? Does Japan have any way to ultimately reach its goals of getting the Kurils Islands back and signing a peace treaty with Russia? The answer probably is no.

Above all, Japan has no means to enforce Russia to compromise.

As mentioned above, Russia is on an advantageous position; Japan’s dependence on Russia is actually much heavier than Russia’s reliance on Japan. Japan could only get most of its energy from Russia, while for Russia, even if Japan does not buy its oil and gas anymore, it still has China, South Korea, India, and many other markets.

In addition, Russia is not sensitive to Japan’s pressure. After Medvedev’s first visit to the Kurils Island in 2010, although Japan threatened “negative consequences”, Russia not only argued that Russian president is free to visit any part of his country, but also began to strengthen defense of the islands.

By the beginning of 2011, Russia had deployed “Buk-M1” anti-aircraft missile systems and a battalion of T-80 tanks on the islands.[24]

And Japan failed to stop Medvedev from visiting the Kurils Islands for the second time in 2012.

Japanese leaders also face political pressures if they recognize Russia’s sovereignty over the Kurils Islands. Japan makes February 7 as its national day for “the return of the northern territories”, and Japanese nationalists would protest in this day every year and demand Russia to return the Kurils Islands.[25]

And a poll conducted by the Tokyo daily Mainchi this year indicated that about two third of people asked the government not to spoil Russia and opposed to compromise in the islands dispute.[26]

If Russia and Japan are to move forward in the security and defense realm, it is not likely to do so based on an agreement by Russia to return the islands to Japan.

Clear Limits to the Expansion of Russian-Japanese Security Relations 

Although Russia and Japan signed a series of agreements for security cooperation in this 2+2 meeting, and even joint naval drill has been scheduled, the two countries’ deep mutual distrust decides this security relations between them is fragile.

There are still serious security dilemma problems exist between Russia and Japan.

As mentioned above, Russia had begun to strengthen the defense on the Kurils Island in 2011 after Medvedev’s visit there, which led to Japan’s strong reaction. Considering the islands’ strategic position, Russia’s military presence there would certainly threaten Japan’s north part.

Conversely, if the islands were returned to Japan, it would for certain lead to Japanese military’s deployment there. And given the existence of US-Japan alliance, Russia’s Pacific Fleet homed at the port of Vladivostok would be vulnerable.[27]

The security dilemma is so serious, and not matter which side finally controls the islands, it would always make another feels threatened.

Frequent frictions between the two countries also stop them from further developing mutual trust and security cooperation.

On February 7, 2013, at the same day of Japan’s national day for “the return of the northern territories”, despite Abe gave a speech about to seek a mutual acceptable way to solve the islands dispute, Japanese Defense Ministry accused Russian fighter jets violated Japanese airs space, while Russia denied this.[28]

On the April, 2013, it was reported that two Russia’s long-range anti-submarine aircraft Tu-142 flew over the south-west coast of Japan’s Kyushu island and the northern Hokkaido island, which are both Japanese homeland, Japan then raised their fighters to follow the Russian aircrafts.[29]

On July 15, 2013, Japanese and South Korean fighter jets raised and followed two Russian Tu-95 MS strategic bombers that were flying a training mission in the Eastern Military District, although they did not violate Japanese airspace.[30]

These incidents all indicated how deep the mutual distrust between Japan and Russia.

New Cooperative Efforts

Although they had some military exchanges and security cooperation in these two years, the scales and depth were very limited.

On September 23, 2012, two Japanese warships arrived Russia’s Vladivostok for a joint drill, but limited to anti-piracy.[31] On October 23, 2012, Japanese Foreign Minister Genba met and talked with the Secretary of Russia’s Security Concil Nikolai Patrushev in Tokyo, but no any Japanese defense officials attended the meeting.

(For some footage provided by CCTV, the Chinese news agency, see the following on the September 2012 visit:)

And the two sides focused on the general topic of security of the Asia Pacific Region, and stressed the region’s stability fitted both sides’ interests, yet no any substantial achievement about Russia-Japan security relations was achieved.[32]

On July 31, 2013, two Japanese warships visited St. Petersburg, but this was limited military exchange, the main activity was to arrange Japanese sailors to visit the Admiral Kuznetsov Naval Academy.[33]

The security cooperation agreement the two sides achieved in the 2+2 meeting was limited to the two counters: piracy and terrorism.

What is more noteworthy is the fact that Japan is a close ally of the US, which is still regarded as a main adversary of Russia, would undoubtedly influence the depth of Russia-Japan security cooperation.

The Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov noted in the 2+2 meeting, “the two-plus-two format is not an encroachment on Japan’s relations with the United States or with any other country. We hope that the United States’ relations with Japan will not pose problems to Russia, either…It is our fundamental principle to never make friends with any country to the detriment of somebody else. It is one of the priorities of Russia’s foreign policy to ensure not a single country should feel discomfort or risks to its security.”[34]

Yet the Russians went out of their way to express their concern with the US plan to deploy the second missile defense radar in Japan.

In the news conference after the meeting, Russian Defense Minister Shigu said, “We made no secret of the fact that the creation by the US of a global missile defense system, including a Japanese element, is causing us grave concern, primarily over the possible destruction of the strategic balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.”[35]


The inability to resolve the Kurils Islands dispute and to sign a peace treaty to end World War II remain as factors curtaining real cooperaton between Russia and Japan in defense and security.

Russia believes it can get what it wants without the need to resolve the dispute.

If the Russians can keep Japanese investment and technology flowing into Russia, why would Russian leaders return the islands?

In addition, the Russians are reaching out to others in the region to shape its China policy as well. It is also developing relations with South Korea, India, and Vietnam to broaden its options.[36]

Japan’s role, although important, is not indispensable for Russia for its China policy in the Pacific.

Su Wang is in the Master of Public and International Affairs program of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) of the University of Pittsburgh.

Editor’s Note: The fact that the meeting was held is significant.  It is yet another indicator of the growing impact of the PRC’s behavior in the Pacific upon key Asian states.  

While the author is correct to underscore the impediment of the disputes between Russia and Japan, the launch of this sort of meeting can clearly lead to an expansion of relationships.  And working on anti-piracy can be a very useful venue for expanding maritime and related security operations which clearly have the possibility of security plus defense like relationships.  

And the same is certainly true for counter-terrorism for the entire Afghan war has been characterized as a counter-terrorism operation.

Perhaps the Japanese and Russians have agreed to put the Island dispute on the shelf and are exploring the expansion of their security and defense relationships where they can.

The author highlighted the other Russian initiatives in the region and these are clearly of interest to Japan.  Notably, the rearming of Vietnam, a key area of interest for Russia, can be a focal point of their relationship as well. 

In our new book on reshaping Pacific strategy to provide for Pacific defense, the entire second section of the book looks at the evolution of Japanese defense policy and the impact of that evolution on the US-Japanese relationship

  1. Takashi Mochizuki, “Russia, Japan Agree to Expand Security Cooperation—Warming Ties Likely to Send Signal to China”, The Wall Street Journal, 2 Nov, 2013,
  2. Ibid.
  3. “‘Russia’s New Asia Strategy: Assessing Russia’s Eastward Pivot’ Event Summary”, CSIS, 14 Nov, 2012,
  4. Subhash Kapila, “Russia’s Strategic Pivot to Asia Pacific”, South Asia Analysis Group, 8 Apr, 2013,
  5. Takashi Mochizuki, “Russia, Japan Agree to Expand Security Cooperation—Warming Ties Likely to Send Signal to China”, The Wall Street Journal, 2 Nov, 2013,
  6. “Economic Relations Between Russia and Japan”, The Embassy of The Russian Federation to Japan,
  7. “Russia Calls Closer Cooperation With Japan”, Voice of Russia, 12 Jan, 2012,
  8. “Russia Japan Can Negotiate Peace Treaty Without Preconditions—Lavrov”, Voice of Russia, 28 Jan, 2012,
  9. “Russia to Focus on Kurils”, Voice of Russia, 13 Oct, 2011,
  10. Mikhail Mozzhechkov, “Abe’s Russia Visit: Gas Prices and Territorial Dispute On Agenda”, Voice of Russia, 3 May, 2013,
  11. Richard Weitz, “The Thorn in Japan Russia Ties”, The Diplomat, 24 Feb, 2012,
  12. “Russian-Japanese Relations”, The Embassy of The Russian Federation to Japan,
  13. “Japan FM Looks Russia’s South Kuril Islands”, Voice of Russia, 14 Jan, 2012,
  14. “Matviyenko Comfirms Russia’s stance on South Kurils”, Voice of Russia, 11 Jan, 2012,
  15. “Tokyo’s Kurils Statement ‘Unacceptable’-Moscow”, Voice of Russia, 14 Jan, 2013,
  16. “Russia Calls Closer Cooperation With Japan”, Voice of Russia, 12 Jan, 2012,
  17. “Russia Threatens Critical Japanese Officials With Travel Restrictions Over Territorial Dispute”, Japan Daily Press, 27 Sept, 2013,
  18. “Medvedev ‘Uninterested’ In Japan’s Response to Kurils Visit”, Voice of Russia, 5 Jul, 2012,
  19. F. Joseph Dresen, “Japan and Russia: Strategic Positioning In East Asia”, Wilson Center,
  20. Mikhail Mozzhechkov, “Abe’s Russia Visit: Gas Prices and Territorial Dispute On Agenda”, Voice of Russia, 3 May, 2013,
  21. “Russia Japan Sign Energy Accords”, Voice of Russia, 29 Apr, 2013
  22. “Japan’s Official Position On S Kurils Far From Clear”, Voice of Russia, 7 Feb, 2013
  23. “Japan to Set Up Publicity Office on Disputed Islands-Related Issues”, Voice of Russia, 8 Feb, 2013
  24. “Russia to Focus on Kurils”, Voice of Russia, 13 Oct, 2011,
  25. “Japan to Continue Search For Solution to South Kurils Problem”, Voice of Russia, 7 Feb, 2013,
  26. “S Kurils Dispute to Dominate Japan PM’s Moscow Visit”, Voice of Russia, 28 Apr, 2013,
  27. Richard Weitz, “The Thorn in Japan Russia Ties”, The Diplomat, 24 Feb, 2012,
  28. “Russia’s Pacific Fleet Fighters Didn’t Breach Japan’s Air Space-Russian Defense Ministry”, Voice of Russia, 7 Feb, 2013,
  29. “Japan Scrambles Jets After ‘Russian Intrusion’”, Voice of Russia, 15 Jul, 2013,
  30. “Japanese S Korean Fighter Jets Follow Russian Bombers Over Sea of Japan’”, Voice of Russia, 15 Jul, 2013,
  31. “Russia, Japan to Hold Anti-Piracy Drill”, Voice of Russia, 23 Sept, 2012,
  32. “Japan’s Foreign Minister Meets Russia’s Security Council Chief”, Voice of Russia, 23 Oct, 2012,
  33. “Japanese Warships Arrive In St. Petersburg On First Visit”, Voice of Russia, 31 Jul, 2013,
  34. “Moscow Hopes US-Japanese Relations to Create No Problems for Russia-Lavrov”, Voice of Russia, 2 Nov, 2013,
  35. “Russia, Japan Discuss US Missile Defense Network”, PanArmenian Network, 2 Nov, 2013,
  36. Zachary Keck, “To Hedge Its Bets, Russia Is Encircling China”, The Diplomat, 5 Nov, 2013,