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Russia’s “hardline” approach and pro-Russian state minister cast shadow over MOFA

  • December 1, 2021
  • , Sentaku
  • JMH Translation

The launch of the Kishida administration is likely to exacerbate Russia’s already hardline approach toward Japan. According to a Japanese diplomatic source, the administration of Kishida Fumio, like the one led by Suga Yoshihide, is not “much interested in Japan-Russia diplomatic relations.” This is unlike Abe administration, which left a “negative legacy” by allowing Russia to lead it by the nose on the issues of the Northern Territories. Russia, on its part, is suffering from the loss of Abe and hoping to obtain a further economic concessions by putting Japan off balance. In addition to China and North Korea, Russia will likely present the Kishida administration with another diplomatic and security challenge.


Russia makes noise over Japan’s “espionage”


“It’s harassment; Russia is suggesting espionage to spread an unfavorable impression of Japan,” says an expert on Russia, analyzing an article published by a Russian media outlet on Nov. 11. The article claimed that Russian intelligence has learned that a Japanese military attaché assigned to the Japanese Embassy in Moscow was in contact with Ivan Safronov, a former reporter of Russian news outlet Kommersant, from 2012 to 2018. Safronov was arrested by Russia’s Federal Security Service on the charge of treason for providing military intelligence to a Czech intelligence agency. The Czech Republic is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


The state-controlled media asserted: “In November 2012, Military Attaché Nitta Hiroshi, who is originally from the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, contacted Safronov to gain information on personnel transfers in the Russian Defense Ministry and the technological capabilities of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Bulava. Ahead of their meeting at the restaurant ‘Tokyo’ in March 2013, Nitta asked Safronov to share information on the Su-35 fighter jet destined for China and Lada-class submarines.


“In July 2013, Military Attaché Ishida Hiroshi, originally from the Ground Self-Defense Force, met with Safronov at Lotte Hotel in Moscow and expressed interest in the modernization of Russian military weapons as well as in Russian military’s relations with APEC nations. A source familiar with the matter said, ‘Similar meetings were held until 2018.’’’


The article also cited other Japanese who contacted Safronov, such as Hamazaki Shingo, Ono Kazuya, and Takase Atsuya.


This is only one example of Russia’s hardening attitude toward Japan. In the past few months, there occurred a series of incidents underscoring this trend.


In late July, immediately after the Tokyo Olympic Games began, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin visited Etorofu Island. The last time a Russian premier visited the Northern Territories was in August 2019, when then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev did so. According to the article, Mishustin toured the island with Deputy Prime Minister Tortonev and visited a clinic and a fishing product processing plant to talk with workers.


Furthermore, in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin unilaterally announced an initiative to establish a special tariff-free zone on the Northern Islands under Russian law. As a result, the joint economic initiative between Japan and Russia, premised on not undermining legal standing of either country, reached a deadlock. 


In October, Russia conducted joint naval exercises with China in the Sea of Japan. Following the conclusion of the exercises, a total of ten vessels from the two navies, including ships that had participated the exercise, circumnavigated the Japanese archipelago to demonstrate their prowess, sailing through the Tsugaru Strait, near the Izu islands, and passing through the Osumi Strait. According to the Ministry of Defense, the Air Self-Defense Force scrambled fighter jets when it was confirmed that ship-based helicopters were taking off and landing on the Russian and Chinese ships near the Izu islands as well as in the East China Sea.


“This was the first time we confirmed extended large-scale joint activities by Russia and China in the waters surrounding Japan,” remarked Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo at a press conference. “It is extremely unusual,” he added, suggesting a sense of crisis felt over Japan’s intensifying security environment. On Nov. 19, Russian and Chinese bombers flew over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea under the pretext of a “patrol mission.” While the aircraft didn’t enter Japanese airspace, their flight lasted more than ten hours.


The Putin administration is putting greater emphasis on “historical perception” with regard to wartime responsibility of the Imperial Japan Army and Navy as well. In August, Russia disclosed documents on Kwantung Army’s efforts to develop a biological weapon. Based on these documents, the government-controlled Russian media published commentaries that justified the former Soviet Union’s decision to join the war on Japan. In September, Russia convened an international forum on the Khabarovsk War Crime Trial of former Kwantung Army officers who had been involved in the biological weapons development. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sent a message to the forum. 


Suzuki Takako, State Minister for Foreign Affairs, presents a problem to MOFA


As Russia mounts a pressure on Japan, there have been curious moves inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) that concern Suzuki Takako, State Minister for Foreign Affairs.


Suzuki has long dedicated herself to enhancing Japan-Russia relations, just like her father, Upper House member Suzuki Muneo, who is known as the most pro-Russian Japanese politician.


In her recent introductory remarks at the ministry, the younger Suzuki mentioned the “Muneo manual” that had reportedly existed in MOFA, saying with a hint of sarcasm: “I heard influential politicians possess a manual to teach officials how to handle him. I will strive to impress the ministry officials enough so that they will create a manual that tells how to handle me.”


It is difficult to know whether the ministry officials acted in line with her views, or whether she made her wishes known, but the parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs, one of three political-level appointees at the ministry, has lost jurisdiction over Russia, thus putting Suzuki Takako in the sole position to oversee Japan’s Russia policy, except for Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa. This is an anomaly considering that, as a rule, the state minister and the parliamentary secretary have shared jurisdictions over countries and policy fields.


As for the issue of the Northern Territories, the focal point of the Japan-Russia relations, Suzuki has publicly criticized the return of all four islands as “unrealistic,” following the example of her father, who has advocated the return of two islands. In her blog posts, she praised her father for his Russia policy and supported his position by quoting remarks by Russian residents whom she encountered while visiting the Northern Territories.


“It’s like having a wholly owned subsidiary of Suzuki Muneo inside the ministry,” says a diplomatic source. “She seems to be enthusiastic about her job, but it’s too risky to give her free rein in issues concerning the Northern Territories and Japan’s diplomacy with Russia,”


Under the Abe administration, MOFA was deeply concerned by the Russia diplomacy led by the Kantei [Prime Minister’s Office]. When the administration changed, MOFA expected to regain leadership in Japan’s diplomacy toward Russia. Suzuki Takako, however, added a new factor of uncertainty.


“I hope she will avoid making the same mistake as her father and will solve the issue of the Northern Territories by joining hands with the government and the public,” said the aforementioned diplomatic source in a low voice. “We would like to see the state minister exert her ‘influence’ in the proper way.”


If MOFA carelessly takes a pro-Russian step, it would send the wrong signal to Russia, which is taking a tough stance. Going forward, it is worth watching whether Foreign Minister Hayashi will be able to rein in the state minister.


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