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Russia-friendly Trump likely to give Abe leeway on Putin negotiations

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo

With Japan eager to make a breakthrough in its stalled territorial talks with Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s visit next month, winning U.S. approval — or at least a tacit nod from Washington — is vital to Tokyo’s continued engagement with Moscow, which remains under international sanctions over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is likely to give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the go-ahead for advancing negotiations with Russia, American foreign policy experts say, citing Trump’s coziness with the Kremlin.

While President Barack Obama has been sharply critical of Putin over issues such as Ukraine, Syria and cyberattacks, Trump has praised Putin as a strong leader and even hinted he might recognize Russia’s claim to Crimea.

In recent telephone talks with Putin, Trump called for building “a strong and enduring relationship” with Russia, a departure from what the Kremlin has described as “extremely unsatisfactory” ties with the Obama administration.

“A Trump administration will probably not be as wary as Obama’s was about closer Japan-Russia ties,” said James Schoff, senior associate for the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

“Obama’s team was worried that Abe’s outreach might relieve economic pressure on Russia vis-a-vis the G-7 sanctions,” Schoff said, referring to the punitive action by the Group of Seven nations — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

The Obama administration has been cautious about Abe courting Putin with economic cooperation, which Japan hopes to use as leverage to advance the territorial talks.

Schoff said he suspects that the New York business mogul who will succeed Obama on Jan. 20 will “care a little less about the issue of G-7 solidarity,” which would allow Abe to “have a little more room with which to engage Russia economically in an effort to improve relations and recover the Northern Territories,” he said, referring to the issue.

The dispute over the four Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands off Hokkaido has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a peace treaty to formally end World War II.

Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank, echoed this view, saying, “Trump seems to have a high opinion of Putin, which suggests, at least, that he may not be as opposed to dealing with him as the Obama administration was.

“If you don’t think Putin is the threat to the West that Obama and many other European governments think he is, then you have less concern about Abe doing business with him,” Glosserman added. “Tokyo could have a green light to proceed.”

However, both Schoff and Glosserman noted that it remains to be seen if Trump will actually be as conciliatory to Moscow as he hinted during the presidential campaign, since he has yet to lay out a detailed Russia policy.

He could also face pressure from hard-line Republican leaders such as his running mate, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and Sen. John McCain, who have both taken a tough stance on Putin.

Despite optimism about currently strained Washington-Moscow relations, eased pressure from a Trump administration and a possible rift between Trump and European leaders over the trans-Atlantic alliance, the Paris climate accord and the Iranian nuclear deal “might mean that Putin will need Japan a little less than maybe he would under Hillary Clinton,” according to Schoff.

Unlike Trump, who defeated the Democratic presidential nominee in the Nov. 8 election, Clinton has expressed hawkish views on Russia. She was in sync with the European Union over NATO, climate change and Iran.

“So I don’t expect any meaningful compromise by Putin on the issues Japan cares about most,” Schoff said, referring to the prospects for progress on the territorial issue at the Abe-Putin summit in Japan.

At his meeting with Putin in the Peruvian capital Lima on Saturday, Abe expressed his intention to hold talks on economic issues with the Russian leader on Dec. 16 in Tokyo, following their scheduled talks in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Abe’s stronghold, on the day before.

“Putin will instead want to talk about Japanese investment in Russia in the near term, with a vague reference to the possibility that improved relations overall might create an atmosphere in the future when solution of the territorial issue will be easier,” Schoff said.

Similarly, Glosserman questioned views in Tokyo that improved Japan-Russia ties will help curb China’s rising assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region. “I don’t think Moscow will make commitments that limit its room for maneuver with Beijing.

“In other words, in the absence of a more palpable threat from China, Russia will prioritize Beijing over Tokyo,” he added. “That could change, but the world will have to change more — even more than just electing Trump — for that strategic realignment to occur.”