In August this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin declassified documents on the now-defunct Kwantung Army’s plan to develop biological weapons. Since then, Putin continues to spotlight the actions of the Imperial Japanese Army in the Second World War. This month, Putin convened an academic conference on the Khavarovsk War Crime Trial, in which Japan’s war criminals were tried by the former Soviet Army. Putin sent a message to the conference criticizing attempts to tamper with the history.
“Discussing historical issues based on facts and official documents is important to counter attempts to distort the history of the war,” the message read. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also sent a video message, in which he stated: “What’s important is that we carry the memory of the atrocities caused by the Japanese militarists into the future.”
The Khavarovsk Trial was a 1949 Soviet military tribunal that tried senior officers of the Kwantung Army and members of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731, which had been developing biological weapons. Ahead of the conference, Russia’s intelligence organization, Federal Security Service (FSB), declassified related documents. Some documents reportedly claimed that the Unit 731 tested its biological weapons on Soviet POWs and that the Kwantung Army was preparing for war with the Soviet Union. Russia’s state-run media ran big stories about the disclosure.
The conference was sponsored by the Internal Affairs and Defense ministries and the Russian Historical Society, whose director is Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service. At the conference, it was stressed that “the Soviet Army prevented the Imperial Japanese Army from destroying the world through biological war.”
In the negotiations on the Northern Territories, Putin has often brought up historical issues with Japan, saying that “the territorial sovereignty of the Northern Territories shifted to the Soviet Union as a lawful outcome of the WWII.” In an attempt to deter Japan’s argument that the Northern Territories were unlawfully occupied by the Soviet Army, Naryshkin, who participated the council via online, added: “Japan’s admitting the outcome of the WWII will give foundation from which to move the Russia-Japan relations to the next level, including most sensitive issues.”
The impact of such “attacks” on Russia’s relations with Japan won’t be too serious, according to Dmitry Streltsov, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (Japanese history). The professor explained that the newly declassified documents contained few previously unknown facts; these documents didn’t newly unveil Japan’s “war crimes.”
Rather, Streltsov pointed to the documents’ impact on Putin’s domestic audience. To boost the solidarity of Russian society, particularly ahead of Sept. 17-19 election of the State Duma, Putin is increasingly inclined to fuel nationalism by highlighting the Soviet victory in the WWII.
Meanwhile, Putin is also deepening cooperation with China, including in the two countries’ historical perceptions. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the top diplomats of Russia and China agreed during a teleconference on August 16 to hold a joint ceremony to commemorate the two countries’ respective wars with Japan and Germany.
Streltsov said: “The importance of the relationship with China is rising [in Russia]. It is possible that [through the series of recent moves] Putin is attempting to stress a common perspective on history with China,” suggesting that such coordination between Russia and China on history is likely to continue. (Abridged)