National / Politics

Kremlin blindsides Tokyo with premature announcement of Putin visit

by Reiji Yoshida and Alastair Wanklyn

Staff Writers

The Kremlin on Tuesday announced a visit by President Vladimir Putin to Japan that was news to Tokyo.

“Putin’s long-delayed visit to Japan will take place in December,” presidential aide Yury Ushakov told reporters in Moscow. “The dates of the visit have already been agreed.”

Japanese officials scrambled to make sense of it. Officially, they said, the schedule remains undetermined.

Asked if Moscow is trying to force Tokyo’s hand, one senior official said he could not speculate.

One Russia-based international relations analyst said it may have been a mistake, as Moscow has no reason to pressure Tokyo or to offend it.

The announcement came a day after Tokyo hinted at a shift of focus from resolving a bilateral territorial standoff to investing in Russia, particularly its neglected Far East.

This would push the right buttons in Moscow, said Victoria Panova, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Russia.

Panova said making Russia’s far-flung regions self-sufficient is now a policy priority for the Russian government, and there are few barriers to entry.

“Russia doesn’t bear negative feelings towards Japan, as could be the case with other Asia neighbors,” she said. “This should be exploited as a good opportunity.”

Japanese government sources on Tuesday said the investment may include the energy sector and equipping a medical center.

Also Tuesday, a Russian newspaper reported that the Kremlin has spent the past several months preparing a list of projects in which it wants Japanese investment.The Kommersant daily said the list will be presented to the Japanese side when leaders meet this week at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.

Last week, a former Russian ambassador to Japan told Kommersant that Japan’s expansion of engagement with Russia marks a de facto exit from sanctions, prioritizing Tokyo’s geopolitical interests over solidarity with Washington.

“For Tokyo, the key task now is not to allow Russia and China to unite on an anti-Japanese basis,” the diplomat, Alexander Panov, was quoted as saying.

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday said Tokyo and Moscow are free to define their own relationship but underscored continued concerns about Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“It’s still not time for, quote unquote, business as usual with Russia across a wide variety of sectors,” department spokesman John Kirby said.

Some analysts in Russia say Japan regards China’s economic inroads in Russia, Central Asia and elsewhere with envy and wants access before the most profitable projects are snapped up.

“Japan sees its vital national interest to provide an alternative to Chinese dominance in this relationship and give Putin another option,” said Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Moscow may also realize the limits of its reach. A government initiative offering free land to settlers moving to the Far East was derided as involving plots too small to farm, and that the best ones seemed snapped up by insiders.

There is also some social discontent. In one example, a petition last month urged Putin to do something about the high cost of air travel to Moscow, according to the Russian Vladnews news agency.

Japan’s chief government spokesman said Putin’s visit will be a topic of discussion when leaders meet in the next few days.

“I think (the two countries) will finalize the date through such opportunities as summit meetings,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference in Tokyo.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is to meet Putin on Friday in Vladivostok. They will also attend the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China, next week.

The Vladivostok talks will touch on both Putin’s proposed visit and progress toward a post-World War II peace treaty, Suga said. Tokyo and Moscow have yet to conclude a peace treaty after Japan’s surrender in 1945.

The main stumbling block has been the territorial dispute over three islands and a group of islets off Hokkaido that were taken from Japan by the Soviet Union after it declared war on Japan on Aug. 9, 1945, in violation of a pact of neutrality.

“We expect (Abe and Putin) will have frank, forward-looking discussions” over the territorial dispute in Vladivostok, Suga said.

A cursory reading of Russian sentiment suggests the dispute will fester for a while yet.

A survey in August showed that only 38 percent of Russians consider it important to strike a peace treaty with Japan, and a hefty 78 percent oppose any return of land from the disputed area.

But the survey, by Moscow pollster the Levada Center, found attitudes had softened since a similar question was asked in 2011. Back then, a full 90 percent of Russians opposed returning isles.