Russian military and natural gas make Japan wary of US sanctions

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The US campaign for a broad alliance to deter Russia is facing headwinds in Japan, which depends on Russian energy imports and wants to keep talks with Moscow over the disputed islands.

Moscow said on Monday it had sent more than 20 warships to the seas near the islands and earlier this month briefed Japan on plans for live-fire exercises in the region. Tokyo said it filed a protest.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has emphasized dialogue with Russia at an annual rally this week to mark Japan’s claim to the disputed islands, which lie at the southern end of the Kuril archipelago and are known as the Northern Territories in Japan.

“It is extremely regrettable that 76 years after the war, the issue of the Northern Territories has not been resolved and a peace treaty between Japan and Russia has not been agreed,” Mr Kishida said. . “I will persevere in the talks on the islands.”

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, in a gray suit, visits Iturup, an island at the southern tip of the Kuril archipelago, in July.


Photo:

Dmitry Astakhov/Sputnik/Reuters

Japan and Russia never signed a peace treaty after World War II because Tokyo wants a deal for some of the islands to return first. Russia says Japan should accept Moscow ownership. Some islands are so close to Japan that a Russian asylum seeker swam from one to the Japanese mainland last year.

“We believe that the absence of a peace treaty in our relations is absurd,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said during the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in September. He said Russia wanted full normalization of relations with Japan, but, alluding to the large contingent of American troops in Japan, said “there must be safeguards against surprises from the possible deployment of forces American armies, not to mention missile systems, near our borders”. .”

Japan’s wariness of Russia’s wrath also stems from its economic and energy ties with Moscow, which are less extensive than those of another hesitant US ally, Germany, but still significant. Japan depends on imported natural gas for electricity and almost a tenth of these imports come from Russia.

A natural gas plant on the Russian island of Sakhalin.


Photo:

VLADIMIR SOLDATKIN/REUTERS

Japanese trading houses Mitsui & Co. and Mitsubishi Corp.

hold a combined 22.5% stake in an oil and gas project on the Russian island of Sakhalin.

“I am very concerned about the damage to economic activity and investor sentiment if sanctions are imposed on Russia,” Mitsubishi chief financial officer Kazuyuki Masu said last week.

Despite Japan’s dependence on energy imports, Tokyo said on Wednesday it would provide a small amount of its liquefied natural gas supply to Europe as an emergency measure following a request from United States and the European Union.

Japan’s foreign minister said on Tuesday that Mr Kishida, the prime minister, had spoken to President Biden about a response if Russia invaded Ukraine, but the foreign minister declined to discuss what Tokyo was ready to do.

A poll by the Nikkei newspaper in late January showed a roughly even split between people who thought Japan should align itself with the United States in any sanctions against Russia related to the Ukraine crisis and those who thought Japan should go its own way.

Russia’s ambassador to Japan said last week that Moscow would view any sanctions imposed in connection with the Ukraine crisis as tantamount to a severance of relations. The newly arrived US ambassador to Japan, former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, waded into the dispute this week by criticizing the Russian ambassador and posting a video message saying Washington supported Japan’s claim to the disputed territory.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova on Tuesday accused the United States of what she called “keeping Japan’s artificial territorial claims against Russia afloat in order to prevent the two countries from cooperating. on a large scale and in the long term”.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, in 2019 in Osaka, Japan, shakes hands with Russian Vladimir Putin, with whom he spent years trying to resolve a territorial dispute.


Photo:

Yuri Kadobnov/Press Pool

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent nearly eight years in power wooing Mr Putin on the islands, including inviting the Russian leader to talks at a spa resort in Mr Abe’s ancestral hometown in 2016.

The talks made little headway and after Mr Abe resigned in 2020, Russia stepped up its pressure. Last year, he held naval exercises near the islands during the Tokyo Olympics, and he sent a succession of top leaders to visit them.

Russia has also built military installations on the two largest of the disputed islands in recent years. Anti-aircraft missile systems were added in late 2020 alongside the coastal cruise missile launchers deployed a few years earlier. About 3,500 Russian troops are stationed there, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry.

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Military analysts say control of the Kuril Islands chain is important for Russia to ensure its Pacific fleet, including its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, have unchallenged access to the Pacific. Russia is also concerned about the growing presence of North Atlantic Treaty Organization military forces in the Asia-Pacific region, said James Brown, an expert on Japan-Russia relations at Temple University in Tokyo.

The United States and Japan have held a series of naval exercises in the Pacific region with Western European countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany in recent months. Russia and China have held their own joint exercises, including a rare joint tour of Japan by their warships in October last year.

“If Russia can also use the southern Kuriles to deter Japan from taking a tough stance on the Ukraine issue, then from their perspective that has strategic advantages,” Brown said.

The Russian military is continuing military training and exercises across Russia, including in the Far East, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday. “These drills should in no way be a matter of worry and concern for our neighbours,” he said.

At a press conference, President Biden said the United States would shut down Nord Stream 2 – a pipeline to carry natural gas from Russia to Germany – if Moscow invaded Ukraine. The German chancellor expressed her support but did not explicitly say that the project would be stopped. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Write to Alastair Gale at [email protected] and Ann M. Simmons at [email protected]

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