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Following Ukraine invasion, Japan takes much tougher line on Russia



Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s announcements of sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine mark a shift in Japan’s rhetoric and policy, bringing it more in line with the tough position of the other Group of Seven advanced economies.


The sanctions go further than they did in 2014, when Russia annexed eastern Ukraine’s Crimea region. Concerns at that time about not disrupting negotiations with Moscow over four Russian-held islands off eastern Hokkaido, which are claimed by Japan, led to a weaker response that drew international criticism.


On Sunday evening, Kishida introduced a set of new measures against Russia, including extra sanctions, as well as aid for Ukraine.


“This invasion of Ukraine by Russia is an attempt to unilaterally change the status quo by force and shakes the very foundations of the international order. It’s a clear violation of international law, which cannot be tolerated and which we severely condemn,” Kishida said.


“The international community believes that due to Russia’s aggression, it is no longer possible to maintain the same level of relations with Russia.”


In addition to an already announced $100 million loan, Japan will provide another $100 million in emergency humanitarian assistance to the people of the Ukraine. Additional sanctions announced Sunday include asset freezes on Russian government officials, including President Vladimir Putin. In addition, Japan will join the rest of the G7 in blocking some Russian banks from the SWIFT global payment system.


Japan is also considering imposing sanctions against some individuals in Belarus, including high-ranking government officials, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said Monday.


Kishida’s response contrasts strongly with that of 2014. A report by the Mitsui Global Strategic Studies Institute from 2018 concluded that the way then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe introduced sanctions allowed coordination with the U.S. and the European Union but also kept the door open for dialogue with Russia, as Abe had made the return of the islands off Hokkaido a top priority.


U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel has expressed Washington’s satisfaction with the scope, scale and swiftness of Japan’s actions.


“The swift and decisive announcement to support strong financial sanctions on Russia, like the prior steps taken by Prime Minister Kishida, has established a global unified response to the largest land conflict in Europe since World War II,” Emanuel said Sunday in a statement.


James Brown, an associate professor at Temple University’s Japan campus and an expert on Russia-Japan relations, said that while Japan is not at the forefront of international efforts to oppose Russian aggression, it has done more than it did in 2014.


“Some of the rhetoric has been quite powerful. It’s interesting to see both the Japanese foreign minister and prime minister explicitly using the term ‘aggression,’ which they were initially reluctant to do,” he said.


However, Brown points out that, Kishida’s restrictions do not currently apply to the state-owned energy giant Gazprom. Sakhalin Energy, a company owned by Gazprom, Shell, Mitsui and Mitsubishi, produces oil and liquefied natural gas that comes from gas fields in northern Sakhalin. The Sakhalin-2 project, operated by Sakhalin Energy, supplies about 60% of its LNG to Japan.


Last week, the U.S. expanded the scope of existing curbs on Americans who deal in the debt and equity of Russian state-owned enterprises, including Gazprom.


Whether Russia might respond with countersanctions, especially in the area of energy, has Japan worried. On Friday, Russian Ambassador to Japan Mikhail Yurievich Galuzin, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, warned that Russia would respond to Japan’s sanctions, though he did not say how.


Abe had made the return of the islands off Hokkaido, followed by a peace treaty with Russia, a major foreign policy goal.  As a result, he was always reluctant to make statements or take actions that could jeopardize bilateral negotiations over the issue.


Kishida, however, has adopted a much firmer stance in line with the G7, while not commenting on the prospects of peace treaty negotiations with Russia. Given the situation in Ukraine, Brown does not expect Japan to return to the kind of diplomatic approach to Russia that Abe employed.


“The idea of continuing economic cooperation with Russia in the way that was promoted under Abe and the kind of peace treaty talks that were held — I think, all of that, for the foreseeable future, is off the table,” he said.

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