JAPAN’S LOSS BY “IPPON” IN TERRITORIAL NEGOTIATIONS WITH RUSSIA
Japan can be said to have suffered a defeat by “ippon” —a clean throw, to use a judo term—in its recent negotiations with Russia.
As far as Japan is concerned, one cannot but give a low mark for the results of the summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian president Vladimir Putin held December 15-16 in Tokyo and Abe’s hometown of Nagato City, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Joint economic projects alone appear to have made some headway, while no progress was made concerning a possible signing of a peace treaty or a coveted return of the four Russian-occupied islands in the Southern Kuriles.
Behind the Japanese setback at the 16th summit between the leaders of the two countries were major changes in the international political scene. These changes favored Russia and the outcome of the summit was predictable. After all, Japan is a nation committed to peaceful coexistence, while Russia practices the art of “realpolitik,” employing whatever is necessary to attain its goals, whether that be military means, cyberattacks, or subterfuge.
How has the international politics changed to favor Russia? In March of 2014, when Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula, Putin got a 90% approval rating at home but stood isolated internationally.
Economic sanctions imposed by the US and European nations contributed to a further deterioration of Russia’s economy, which was already struggling with the low price of crude oil. Faced with these challenges, Russia turned to China. How much economic benefits Beijing will bring to Russia remains greatly questionable, but Putin has called China its “privileged strategic partner,” positioning its closeness with Beijing as a diplomatic card against Japan and the US.
Japan’s overture to Russia, just when Moscow was becoming increasingly more isolated internationally, must have appeared to Putin to be a golden opportunity to attract much-needed investment and technological cooperation. Undoubtedly, Russia’s isolation played a significant part in Putin’s positive response. Putin must have carefully ascertained Japan’s yearning for a resolution of the territorial issue, as well as its desire to position Russia as a diplomatic card vis-a-vis China.
However, the situation began to change with the appearance of Donald Trump in American politics. Trump spoke positively of Putin while campaigning for the presidency, and after the election, President Obama concluded that Putin launched cyberattacks to help Trump win.
The Washington Post has now reported that the CIA concurs with the president, concluding that Russia did indeed launch cyberattacks in order to interfere with the election. The Trump side has denounced the CIA, creating a situation in which a serious rift could develop between the next president and the CIA which fully controls America’s state secrets.
“Secret Police” Tactics
With its economic and military power in decline, Russia has been able to find a new means of attack to affect America’s choice of its new leader, while also possibly causing cracks in the inner circle of America’s power structure. Even a small nation can sway and influence the politics of a major power when new methods of disseminating information, such as the Internet and SNS, are effectively utilized.
Though a declining former super power, Russia under Putin is still ruthless and powerful when it comes to information warfare. Next year, national elections will be held in a number of European nations. One must assume that forces longing to influence world politics will once more be sure to resort to cyberattacks.
We have now entered an era in which national politics can be manipulated by “secret police” tactics. The changes in international politics evolving before our very eyes may lead to sea changes impossible for us to predict.
Trump has nominated Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobile as Secretary of State. Tillerson has maintained a relationship with Putin for more than the past two decades through his firm’s oil development business. Russia has welcomed his nomination; Tillerson has strongly opposed economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and European nations.
Another key personnel decision made by the Trump transition team is the nomination as National Security Advisor of Michael Flynn, a retired army lieutenant general who last served as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn has declared that Russia can be America’s partner if it is ready to combat the threat of Islamic radicals.
At least three members of the new administration slated for inauguration next month are pro-Russia—the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Advisor. The Trump administration is the exact opposite of the Obama administration, which has viewed Russia as the gravest threat to world peace and stability.
I suspect that the changes in the US, which must be termed sheer good luck for Putin, discernibly reduced the importance of Japan for Russia, which presumably regarded Japan as an avenue to break out from international sanctions. Did the new international situation, under which Russia no longer needed to make compromises to Japan over the territorial issue, allow Putin to deal with Japan more forcefully?
On December 15, Russian forces operating jointly with the army of President Assad regained Syria’s largest city Aleppo from the rebels. Restoring control over this important commercial city is expected to lead to securing leadership in the Middle East, which also must have added to Putin’s confidence.
Global circumstances increasingly favorable to Putin evolved as the Japan-Russia summit drew near, which explains why Putin could afford to assume a firm attitude toward Abe.
However, the international situation is neither static nor unchangeable. It is definitely bound to change again. Above all else, the Russian economy has not recovered at all, with its foreign currency reserves predicted to run out by the end of next year.
Russian Military Budget Reduced to World’s 6th
With the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, Russia still retains a strong image as a military superpower, but its power is diminishing militarily, too. Its military budget, once the world’s second largest after the US, is now sixth—after the US, China, Britain, India, and Saudi Arabia. Its defense budget this year of US$48.4 billion is seen to be surpassed by France by 2020.
Russia’s proud weapons and equipment vary widely. Its carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, deployed in the Mediterranean in October, was built 30 years ago and is devoid of catapults. Only the US has the sophisticated catapult technology which allows its carrier-based aircraft to instantly accelerate and take off thanks to vapor compression. Meanwhile, aircraft taking off from the Russian carrier are capable of carrying only a limited amount of fuel and bombs. Since November, at least two aircraft from the Admiral Kuznetsov have crashed into the Mediterranean.
In their bombing operations over Syria, Russian airplanes employed “dumb bombs” that cannot hit their targets with any precision. The imprecise Russian bombings resulted in a large number of victims among ordinary citizens.
The regaining of Aleppo was dramatically trumpeted as a successful case of Russian military intervention. However, the fact of the matter is that Russia lost the World Heritage city of Palmyra in central Syria to the Islamic State at about the same time. Palmyra, with its abundant oil wells, is an important strategic stronghold for IS. Experts view the course of the war in Syria as still extremely fluid.
The important thing now for all concerned is to not overestimate or underestimate Russia’s strength. It is best for Japan to endeavor to enhance its capabilities in all areas until the right time comes. Meanwhile, the government should do its best to enable some 7,400 former Japanese residents of the four Russian-held islands in the Kuriles to visit them without restriction.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 735 in the December 29, 2016-January 5, 2017 combined issue of The Weekly Shincho)