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Why Putin is good for Japan

by Tina Burrett

For Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, it has been a hectic summer. He took a spin across 2,100 km of the Siberian tundra in a Lada, was initiated into the Hell’s Angels, fired darts at gray whales with a crossbow and still found time to jump into the cockpit of a Be-200 jet to extinguish the wildfires devastating western Russia. There’s no rest for the wicked.

Usefully, all of Putin’s antics were captured for TV. Given his public relations rampage, it is unsurprising that at a dinner last week with the Valdai club — a group of foreign experts on Russia — Putin was asked about his plans for the next Russian presidential election in 2012. In answering with reference to Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected U.S. president four times, Putin gave his clearest indication yet that he intends to come back as president for another two terms.

Putin’s possible return to the Kremlin will not please Japan’s foreign policymakers. During his previous eight years as president, relations between Moscow and Tokyo remained cool. No serious efforts were made to overcome the long-standing and acrimonious dispute over the Northern Territories, a group of four islands seized from Japan by Stalin during the closing phase of World War II.

Perhaps blinded by their own patriotic fervor, the Japanese government saw the restoration of Russian national prestige as the sole ethos of Putin’s foreign policy. Perceiving Putin as the primary obstacle to fruitful negotiations on the Northern Territories, Japanese policymakers offered no incentives to entice him to a compromise, instead pinning their hopes on a “post-Putin” settlement.

Despite relinquishing the presidency to his protege Dmitry Medvedev in 2008, Putin has remained a dominant force in Russian foreign policy as prime minister. His return to the presidency in 2012 would only strengthen his influence in this sphere. But a second Putin presidency does not inevitably imply another decade of permafrost in Japanese-Russian relations.

The Japanese assumption that Putin’s foreign policy objectives center on restoring Russia’s international prestige is only partly correct. Putin’s character is full of contradictions. On the one hand, he is indeed a fervent patriot; enhancing national pride and preserving Russia’s territorial integrity are central pillars of his personal philosophy. On the other hand, Putin is a pragmatist and has proved willing to make compromises with a broad range of partners when it serves his wider interests.

This dualism at the heart of the Putin’s personality is reflected in Moscow’s foreign policy. Pragmatism trumped patriotism when Putin agreed to cede two uninhabited islands, and the uninhabited portion of a third island, to China in October 2004. A year later, prompted by the growing strength of bilateral economic and strategic ties, Russia and China signed an agreement delimiting their 4,300 km border, with Moscow giving many concessions to Beijing.

Putin’s pragmatic approach to relations with China has served both Russian national interests and shared strategic goals. China is the top buyer of Russian military hardware, and accounts for nearly half of Russia’s arms exports.

In the international arena, cooperation between Moscow and Beijing has been strengthened by their mutual resistance to the unipolar dominance of the United States. The current close and friendly nature of Sino-Russian relations, however, is somewhat of a historical anomaly.

For most of the last century, ties between China and Russia were encumbered by deep mutual enmity and distrust. Among the former KGB officers that make up a significant portion of Putin’s inner circle, China remains a source of suspicion and anxiety. They fear China’s burgeoning population is a threat to Russia’s territorial integrity — with 300,000 Chinese workers already living illegally in the Russian Far East — and see relations with Japan as crucial to counterbalancing the growing regional and international influence of Beijing.

Suspicion of China within Putin’s circle represents an opportunity for Japan. A compromise over the Northern Territories serves Russia’s interests if it improves strategic links with Japan. But Moscow will not consider a compromise on the islands without significant enticements from Tokyo. The most logical incentive Japan can offer Moscow is economic. Despite oil riches, an estimated 30 million people in Russia live in poverty, many of them in the Far Eastern regions. Japan’s investment in capital projects in the Russian Far East would carry great favor in Moscow.

The Kremlin’s plan to regenerate Vladivostok and Russky Island in time for the 2012 APEC summit is another prime opportunity for Japanese investment. Russia’s flagging Far Eastern fisheries and aluminum industry would also greatly benefit from financial and technological assistance from Japan, not to mention the role Japanese technology could play in the extraction of Siberian energy resources.

Japan could further enhance its standing in the Kremlin by facilitating the extension of military cooperation between Russia and the U.S. Such a move would allow Russia to save face over the deployment of missile defense in the Pacific, and improve the defenses of all participants against the threats posed by rogue states such as North Korea and Iran. Tokyo’s intervention with Washington in support of Russia’s much delayed bid to join the WTO would also win plaudits in Moscow.

Putin is at once a patriot and a pragmatist. If Japan’s diplomats can convince him that the reversion of part of the Northern Territories to Japanese sovereignty will bring benefits to Russia, it is possible Putin will agree to a compromise. Ironically, owing to his reputation as a Russian patriot, Putin may prove more able to negotiate a settlement on the islands than the more liberally minded Medvedev. In a country that has suffered greatly as a result of market reforms, the liberal label lays heavily on Medvedev. To overcome this impediment, he must tread softly on issues affecting national pride.

For the foreseeable future, Putin is here to stay. Japan cannot afford to wait for a better partner with whom to improve its relations with Russia; despite all appearances to the contrary, there may not be one.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of international relations at Temple University, Japan. She is author of the book “Television and Presidential Power in Putin’s Russia.”