As Vladimir Putin’s grim war in Ukraine escalates, The Economist’s Tokyo bureau chief, Noah Sneider, joins to discuss the reasons for the conflict, the lengths to which Japan is supporting Ukraine, and how the war will redefine relationships between Japan and its northern neighbor, Russia.
- Noah’s War in Translation project
- Japan resists pressure to follow Big Oil’s exit from Russia
- Japan accepts eight people displaced by Russian invasion of Ukraine
- Top Japanese and U.S. officials to meet this week to discuss Ukraine war
- The Japan Times’ full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict
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Oscar Boyd 01:10
Hello, and welcome to Deep Dive. From The Japan Times I’m Oscar Boyd. This week, as Vladimir Putin’s grim war in Ukraine escalates, Noah Sneider, the Tokyo bureau chief and former Moscow correspondent for The Economist, explains the reasons for the conflict, the lengths to which Japan is going to support Ukraine, and how the war will redefine relationships between Japan and its northern neighbor, Russia.
Oscar Boyd 01:41
Noah Sneider, welcome to Deep Dive. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Noah Sneider 01:44
Thank you for having me.
Oscar Boyd 01:45
You lived in and reported from Russia and Ukraine from 2013 to 2020. You were one of the Moscow correspondents there for The Economist. I want to start by asking, what was Ukraine like when you first visited the country?
Noah Sneider 01:57
So the first time I visited Ukraine was actually when I was an exchange student studying in Russia and I just went for a quick trip to Kyiv. And at the time, first of all, Ukraine was a peaceful place. And second of all, it was caught under a corrupt autocratic leader in the form of Viktor Yanukovych. It looked a lot like the slightly dilapidated parts of the rest of the former Soviet Union but you could see the seeds of a different future in Kyiv, a handful of hipster coffee shops and bars and things opening up; at the time it was a country very much in transition. And I went back as a reporter for the first time in 2014, after Ukrainians overthrew the Yanukovych government, which had backed out of an association agreement with the European Union, a step in the direction of Western integration.
Clip: Reporter 02:47
These are the scenes that triggered the breakup of Ukraine. Scenes that have brought the world to the brink of a new Cold War. Unarmed protesters gunned down in the streets by the riot police who were retreating from Kyiv’s Maidan Square.
Oscar Boyd 03:01
And how did you notice the country begin to change in the wake of that revolution?
Noah Sneider 03:05
Well in the immediate aftermath of the revolution there was chaos, and there was the beginning of this war. The first thing that happened was that Russia annexed Crimea, the peninsula in southern Ukraine in the Black Sea. And then war began in eastern Ukraine in the Donbass region, where Russia fueled a separatist movement, sent in tanks and eventually its own soldiers to carve out these self-proclaimed statelets, these self-proclaimed republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. And at the same time, Ukraine was trying to reconstitute itself as a nation, trying to reconstitute itself as a government, but also trying to fight a war with its much larger neighbor.
Oscar Boyd 03:07
And did that war feel like it was largely confined to the country’s eastern regions? Or was there a sense across the entire nation that Ukraine was at war with Russia?
Noah Sneider 03:59
Well, there were a lot of worries in the initial weeks and months that Russia’s campaign would go much further. People thought maybe they would try to take all of the territory from Eastern Ukraine down through Crimea and to Odessa to create this landbridge, or to recreate this sort of czarist era territory that they called Novorossiya. People were worried about Kharkiv, which is a big, predominantly Russian speaking city in the east. So there was a lot of concern that the war would expand. Ultimately, it didn’t, in large part because of a lack of support amongst the Ukrainian population in those cities.
Oscar Boyd 04:33
And when you say support, you mean support in those cities to join Russia, to become part of Russia?
Noah Sneider 04:38
Yes, yeah. And so the conflict eventually kind of settled into a simmering stalemate in 2015. There was a nominal peace agreement signed, which is called the Minsk agreements. And that kind of froze the conflict in place. But it wasn’t real peace, there were still soldiers dying every day and refugees — internally displaced people — moving around the country. Kyiv got back on its feet, for sure, and Ukrainian politics continued in its hectic but really democratic way.
Clip: Reporter 05:10
Now, Ukrainians go to the polls on Sunday to choose their next president. After a first round vote at the end of March, the two remaining candidates are Volodymyr Zelensky, a television star, or Petro Poroshenko, the incumbent president.
Noah Sneider 05:23
And Kyiv in the ensuing years really started to flourish, to the point where people talked about Kyiv as kind of the new Berlin. There was an amazing music scene, a burgeoning food scene. So you have this kind of strange cognitive dissonance, a country and a city growing on the one hand, but a war simmering in the background and everyone living with the specter of that war coming closer.
Oscar Boyd 05:49
So how did that simmering tension, that simmering war, escalate into what we’ve seen over the past two weeks?
Noah Sneider 05:55
Well, the simple answer is that Vladimir Putin made the decision to start a massive war against his neighbor. There’s obviously a lot of background and history and context that’s important to understand that decision. And I think there are a couple of layers that are worth keeping in mind. One is the historical dimension: The relationship between Russia and Ukraine as territories, but also as nations or as peoples, as distinct identities, goes back nearly 1,000 years. Putin’s Russia traces its origins back to Kievan Rus’, where orthodoxy was first adopted in the Eastern Slavic lands. And over the course of nearly that millennium, there’s been both constant attempts to carve out a distinct Ukrainian nation and distinct Ukrainian identity, language, history, culture, and attempts by Russia as essentially an empire to subjugate Ukraine. So I think there’s an Imperial dimension to this and we see that in Putin’s own justifications for what he’s doing. There’s also a more contemporary geopolitical dimension, which is that Ukraine has been moving in the direction of Western institutions, both the European Union but also NATO, and Russia perceives that as a threat. And finally, there’s another layer, which has to do with the fact that Ukraine has also undergone a kind of democratic transition. It’s an imperfect democracy, but it is a democracy. And that is a dangerous example to have nearby for an aging autocrat like Putin. This isn’t a faraway place with a different history and a different culture. These are people who look like Russians, who speak the same language in many cases, but who seem to be able to live under a very different political system. And so I think the existence of, and the growth of, that example on his doorstep is another factor in this conflict.
Oscar Boyd 07:56
So you’re saying the spatial and cultural proximity of Ukraine to Russia provides a direct challenge, or perhaps maybe too obvious an example of a direct alternative to Putin’s rule?
Noah Sneider 08:09
Exactly. It stands as an example of an alternative path. All of that said, I think as this military buildup happened around Ukraine’s borders in recent weeks, virtually no one I was talking to — friends and contacts, both in Russia and in Ukraine — expected that Putin would take this decision, namely to launch an all out war against all of Ukraine.
Clip: Reporter 08:33
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has repeatedly said the situation is under control, and that Russia’s quote-unquote provocations are more of the same since the Kremlin sent troops here, back in 2014.
Noah Sneider 08:47
People thought maybe he would recognize the independence of these self-declared Republics, which is the first thing he did on February 22. And most people thought he would stop there because the idea of Russia launching an invasion of this scale against Ukraine was unfathomable for people on both sides of the conflict. There are still deep personal ties, family ties, everyone has a friend, a cousin, schoolmate on one side of the other. The scope of the destruction involved obviously carries massive risks for Russia itself, and clearly the Russian leadership sort of miscalculated how easy it would be to take Ukraine over. So people were, I think, shocked and stunned that Putin chose this route.
Oscar Boyd 09:37
And over the past two weeks, we’ve really seen this war escalate and escalate and escalate. At first at least, it seemed like the destruction was fairly minimal although nonetheless very significant. But over the last week we’ve seen a real ramping up in terms of Russian military activities — a lot more shelling and we’ve seen the number of people fleeing as refugees increased dramatically. Currently over 1.7 million people are thought to have fled Ukraine as refugees, the vast majority to Poland. And since the start of the most recent outbreak, you’ve been translating the voices of Ukrainians and Russians affected by the war, and sharing them on a Twitter account you’ve created called War in Translation, which I’ll put a link to in the show notes. What are you hearing from people that you are in contact with?
Noah Sneider 10:25
Yeah, I think the thing that’s important to recognize is that this is no longer a contained conflict, this is a full scale war. There are bombs falling all across Ukraine, from airfields in the West that are being targeted by Russian missiles to massive urban centers in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol. And it looks like soon Odessa as well. These are cities where millions of people live. And as you mentioned, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, are making the choice to flee because it’s simply too dangerous to stay. Many others are in hiding, in bunkers. I’m exchanging messages every day with friends who are sleeping in their basements or sleeping in subway stations and only go above ground to try to find a bit of bread to eat the coming night. So this has become an extremely dire situation very quickly, the casualty figures among civilians are already in the hundreds. And that’s almost certainly a massive undercount. There are videos coming out all across Ukraine of really brutal attacks, not just on military installations — which is what the Russian government insists it’s doing — but on hospitals, on schools, on apartment blocks, civilian areas.
Oscar Boyd 11:44
I think one of the most notable things about this war is how accessible a lot of that information is, whether it’s in people sharing their experiences on social media, or sending videos, how 21st century this war does feel, and how easy it is to access and see very personal videos of the tragedies that are unfolding.
Noah Sneider 12:03
Absolutely. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do on this Twitter feed, to take some of that conversation, to take some of those voices that are appearing on social media that are narrating the experience of this war in real time. So we’ve been trying to take those voices and translate them into English and actually, we’re hoping to start doing so into Japanese as well. We’re looking for translators and folks with language skills who can help, so please do check out the link in the show notes.
Oscar Boyd 12:32
How should people contact you, if they’re interested in helping?
Noah Sneider 12:34
We have a website, which is warintranslation.org, and there’s signup sheets there for volunteering, as well as links to the platforms where we’re publishing. Obviously, it’s important to keep up with the news, but important also to hear directly from people living through this tragedy. The other thing I would say is important to keep in mind is that this is a tragedy for Ukraine, but it’s also a catastrophe for Russia. Personally, this is sort of watching two countries that I have lived in and loved destroyed, really, overnight. Obviously, there is some degree of popular support inside Russia for what Putin is doing. But there’s also a lot of dissent. And a lot of people who are not happy about this. They have woken up in essentially a kind of totalitarian dictatorship. The violence abroad, the violence against Ukraine, has also come with an extreme sort of escalation of repression inside Russia. And so on the Russian side, I’ve had dozens of personal friends who have fled. People are trying to get out of the country if they can, because they fear that there’ll be martial law and that young men especially will be forced to serve. People who are staying, many are choosing to protest and we’ve seen thousands of people arrested across Russia in recent weeks. Obviously in the first place, it’s an unfathomable tragedy for people in Ukraine, but it’s also an absolute disaster inside Russia.
Oscar Boyd 14:15
I’d like to move on to discuss how Japan’s role is shaping up in this conflict. And so to start with, what is the Japanese government’s basic position on this war?
Noah Sneider 14:24
So the Japanese government, like much of the world, or certainly much of the Western world, has seen this conflict as a real challenge to the world order as such, rather than just a local territorial conflict or a contained European problem. And that’s a big shift, I think, from the Japanese government’s position back in 2014, when Russia first annexed Crimea and started the initial phase of the war in eastern Ukraine.
Oscar Boyd 14:55
I know that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has been very outspoken about this,
saying, and this is a quote, “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.” So very clearly condemning the war.
Noah Sneider 15:21
Yeah, absolutely. And it’s been striking to see just how quickly the Japanese government, which of course isn’t known for quick policy moves or quick changes in policy, has done essentially a 180 when it comes to Russia policy, and has taken what are, for Japan, some rather unusual and maybe even drastic steps to support Ukraine.
Oscar Boyd 15:53
And that topic of Japan’s relationship with Russia is something I’d like to come back to later on in the episode. But for now, let’s continue on that theme you just mentioned. There’s been regular contact between Prime Minister Kishida and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky over the past few weeks. So far, what has Japan offered Ukraine in terms of support?
Noah Sneider 16:12
Yeah, so there’s a few layers to this. The most striking is a decision to send bulletproof vests and defense kit, not weapons but military supplies, which of course for Japan with its pacifist constitution is a rather unusual step. We’ve also seen Japan announce plans to accept refugees coming from Ukraine. I’ve heard from sources that the details of that are still being worked out and it may not be quite as expansive as it might sound. But that too is a significant step for a country that tends not to welcome many refugees.
Oscar Boyd 16:50
Right, that’s something we’ve covered on Deep Dive before, that Japan currently has one of the lowest refugee acceptance rates of any country in the world, and certainly the lowest in the G7.
Noah Sneider 16:59
Exactly. And then there’s been financial assistance. I know the Ukrainian government, and the Ukrainian Embassy here in Tokyo, have been discussing actively with Japanese counterparts about how Japan can be involved in reconstruction efforts, and how Japan can be involved in rescue efforts. There’s obviously a lot of experience in infrastructure and emergency response here in Japan. So I think we will see several more layers added to the Japanese response in the coming weeks.
Oscar Boyd 17:29
And what about the Japanese public? What’s their response been like to the outbreak of this war?
Noah Sneider 17:34
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been surprised, to be honest, by how deeply this has penetrated public consciousness here in Japan. We’ve seen Japanese government buildings, Japanese castles across the country, lit up in Ukrainian colors. We’ve seen thousands of people coming to march in the center of Tokyo. We’ve seen prominent individuals like the CEO of Rakuten, Mikitani Hiroshi, making large personal donations. We’ve even seen Japanese citizens contributing to accounts that the Ukrainian embassy set up to the tune of something like ¥2 billion at the moment.
Oscar Boyd 18:11
Which is about $17 million or so.
Noah Sneider 18:13
Exactly. So, you know, I was struck going to the march this past weekend through central Tokyo that compared even to a week earlier, to another demonstration at Hachiko square, there were far more people, both in terms of there being more Japanese, rather than just Ukrainian residents or folks connected to the Ukrainian community here. I saw tons of Japanese folks wearing blue and yellow kimono, walking with Ukrainian flags. But also representatives of the Taiwanese community, the Uighur community, the Burmese community. So I think there is a real sense amongst folks here in Japan that this conflict is connected to something larger, that this is about a broader kind of struggle with different forms of authoritarian oppression or authoritarian violence. I haven’t been in Japan as long as I was in Russia or Ukraine, but it certainly seems to me that this has resonated at an unusual level.
Clip: Shinjuku Rally 19:13
Just to mention, I spoke to my mom three days ago — last time when she was laying in the bathroom floor, hiding from bombs.
Oscar Boyd 19:27
I was out of Tokyo last week and I came back and came out of Shinjuku Station on Saturday and there was a huge stage that was set up on the main concourse outside of one of the Shinjuku Station entrances, with music and speeches and a really big crowd of people listening, watching, supporting as best they could.
Noah Sneider 19:47
Yeah, and I think that the big question going forward and this is true, not only for Japan, but for the rest of the world, is what happens with that attention? We see time after time with conflicts in different parts of the world that there’s an outpouring of support and a burst of attention, but that it tends to wane as the days turn into weeks, and the weeks turn into months, and the bloody conflict grinds on. And it seems likely, sadly, that will be the scenario in Ukraine. So I hope that folks won’t get tired of thinking about this or tired of following what’s happening or tired of making clear and making visible that they do care. I know it means a lot to friends in the midst of it. I was sending pictures from the protests on Saturday to friends in bunkers in Kyiv, and all of them were really touched by what they saw, and by the feeling that the world isn’t forgetting about them.
Oscar Boyd 21:03
I’d like to discuss Japan and Russia’s relationship and how that’s developed over the past few decades, and how it will change in response to this war. Prior to the last two weeks of military action that we’ve seen, how did Japan view Russia?
Noah Sneider 21:17
Well, there’s obviously a long history, which includes a direct war of their own between Russia and Japan. And in fact, Japan has its own territorial dispute with Russia over what Japan calls the Northern Territories, what Russian calls the Kuril Islands.
Oscar Boyd 21:34
Right, it’s easy to forget that Japan and Russia are actually neighbors, so vast is the size of the Russian landmass. And actually, if you go to some of the parts of northern Japan, like the town of Wakkanai, the road signs there have Russian written on them alongside the Japanese. And this territorial dispute you’re talking about concerns four islands that are just off the northeast coast of Hokkaido, that were controlled by Japan until the end of World War Two but that are now under Russian administration.
Noah Sneider 22:04
Yeah, Russia is not an abstract, distant question for Japan. More recently, there’s been a big effort in Japan to try to maintain at least a functional relationship with Russia. Even after 2014, even after the annexation of Crimea, Japan was hesitant to impose harsh sanctions. Japan stood apart from other partners in the West and in the G7 in terms of how it dealt with Russia. And especially under the Abe Shinzo government, there was a big effort to maintain relations with Russia in the hopes of resolving that territorial dispute, in the hopes of concluding a formal peace treaty to end the Second World War, but also in the hope of keeping Russia and China from forming too tight a unified front as they face Japan.
Oscar Boyd 22:57
And you said that Japan was hesitant to impose sanctions against Russia following the 2014 annexation of Crimea. With this most recent escalation and conflict in Ukraine, how has Japan responded in terms of sanctions against Russia?
Noah Sneider 23:13
This time, Japan has basically kept pace with the strongest, the most stringent American and European sanctions. So that’s meant everything from asset freezes and bans on officials, running all the way up to President Putin himself. It’s meant joining the West in blocking much of the Russian financial systems, Russian banks access to the Swift payment system, which makes it hard to send international money transfers, international wire transfers. And Japan has also significantly joined in freezing the Russian Central Bank’s foreign currency reserves, which is a step that I think surprised even Western observers. It’s about the most drastic of all the measures, and it’s significant that Japan took part in this because about 10% of the Russians Central Bank’s currency reserves are held in Japan. And that’s about the same amount as the U.S. and the U.K. combined. So Japan has a big role to play there.
Oscar Boyd 24:18
And Japan’s sanctions aren’t just economic, right? It’s also placed export restrictions on high-tech goods like semiconductors and oil refinery equipment going to Russia and Belarus.
Noah Sneider 24:28
Exactly, exactly. There’s been a whole swath of technologies and products that Japan has joined in banning. And we’ve seen discussions — though Japan hasn’t quite moved on this question yet — but discussions about even oil imports as well.
Oscar Boyd 24:50
I know that energy is one of the sectors in which Japan relies quite heavily on exports from Russia, but could you give me a sense of how intertwined the Russian and Japanese economies are at the moment.
Noah Sneider 25:01
So we shouldn’t make too much of it. They’re not massive trade partners for each other. Japan’s imports from Russia were about $11 billion in 2020. But the bulk of that is commodities, so things like wheat, but also, as you mentioned, energy, oil and natural gas. And that’s really the crux of the economic relationship between Japan and Russia. Japanese trading houses — commodity giants that work very closely with the Japanese state — they have deep ties to Russia, and in particular, LNG (liquid natural gas) projects on Sakhalin, which is a Russian Island also north of Hokkaido. There’s a project there called the Sakhalin 2 project and about 60% of the LNG from that project goes to Japan. Mitsui and Mitsubishi have big stakes in that project and it’s raising some uncomfortable questions for Japanese companies, because we’ve seen a huge swath of Western business exit Russia, cut off ties and shut down projects, including oil and gas projects.
Oscar Boyd 26:15
Right, that Sakhalin 2 project you just mentioned was originally a collaboration that included Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and also Shell. And Shell has now exited the project in the wake of the invasion.
Noah Sneider 26:27
Yes, we’ve seen Shell pull out of Sakhalin, we’ve seen Exxon also pull out of another oil project on Sakhalin. So the response in terms of sanctions, there’s a state level response, there are official sanctions that governments are imposing, but there’s also a private sector part of the response. And we’re seeing companies around the world making the decision to to stop operating in Russia.
Oscar Boyd 26:53
I read that about 350 Japanese companies currently operate in Russia and that this is actually a 60% increase from a decade ago. So clearly, up until this point, Russia was quite a big growth market for Japanese companies who were moving in there and doing more and more business. Are we seeing Japanese companies follow suit with their Western counterparts and beginning to scale back or end their operations within Russia?
Noah Sneider 27:18
I think this is where things start to diverge a bit. At the very least, Japanese companies are moving more slowly in making these decisions. And the Japanese government, I think, is equally concerned, or is equally hesitant to push them to move, especially when it comes to energy projects. There’s lots of talk about the importance of maintaining energy security, of maintaining a diverse set of energy supplies. I think pressure is going to increase on the Japanese government and on these companies. Mitsubishi and Mitsui are “considering” what’s going on. Others have declined to comment. Some of the consumer facing companies like car companies, it looks likely that they’ll shut down their local production once their current stocks run out. But others for example, I just read as I was on my way over to record this podcast that Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo, is taking the stance that it will stay and the thinking there is that we don’t want to set the precedent that politics can guide business decisions. And so I think people in the Japanese business community are thinking not only of Russia, but also of China, where of course there have been Western sanctions, for example, over human rights abuses in Xinjiang, that Japanese companies have been loath to join, because they don’t want to upset their market there in China. So I think there’s some tricky balancing acts and hard calculations that Japanese businesses are trying to make at the moment.
Oscar Boyd 28:52
One thing we’ve seen from the US and Europe is the decision to ban Russian aircraft from their airspace.
Clip: Ursula von der Leyen 28:58
We’re proposing a prohibition on all Russian owned, Russian registered and Russian controlled aircraft. These aircraft will no more be able to land in, take off or overfly the territory of the European Union.
Oscar Boyd 29:13
That’s not happened yet in Japan, as far as I’m aware, but is it on the cards?
Noah Sneider 29:18
Well, it’s being discussed, but it hasn’t happened. And a big reason is that if you look at a map, you can see it’s pretty tricky for Japanese planes to get to and from Europe without crossing Russian airspace. And so if Japan was to ban Russian airlines or Russian aircraft from entering its airspace, they would expect a reciprocal ban in return. It’s possible, but from what I’ve seen it looks like it adds a few hours, maybe three or four hours, to flight times. But I think, again, this is another area where you’re going to see more pressure from Western partners and from Ukrainians themselves for Japan to join in. It’s another one of these tricky decisions that the government and companies are going to have to make.
Oscar Boyd 30:06
I know that the new U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, has asked the Japanese government to ban Russian aircraft from its airspace. But yeah, obviously they haven’t taken that decision. It’s interesting talking about the extended flight times because even though that ban hasn’t been put in place, there have been reports of JAL, one of Japan’s main carriers, resurrecting an old route to London that flew across Alaska, which takes 15 hours compared to the usual 11-hour route that goes across Russia from Tokyo to London. Yeah, we’re back to the Cold War.
Noah Sneider 30:41
Yes, one of many ripple effects of this war. And I think we’re already seeing big ripple effects in commodity markets, and in particular in energy. The Japanese government has said it’s going to beef up its countermeasures to subsidize oil wholesalers and try to keep fuel prices from rising too much. I think we also are likely to see rising food prices in the coming weeks and months. A lot of the world’s wheat comes from Ukraine and Russia, and those supply chains are obviously going to be disrupted, if not broken entirely. The sanctions against Russia have been unprecedented, and in my personal opinion, justified given what Putin has done. But this is really the first time that such extensive sanctions have been leveled on an economy of the size Russia has, and of the sort of importance of Russia’s to global supply chains. We’ve talked about energy and wheat, but there’s also all kinds of minerals and materials that the world depends in part on Russia for, so I think we’re going to find out in the coming months what it means for the rest of the world.
Oscar Boyd 32:09
Longer term, how do you think that this war is going to shape and change Japan’s view of Russia?
Noah Sneider 32:16
I think this very clearly has closed off the path that Japan was on, namely trying to maintain a functional relationship with Russia, given Japan’s involvement in the sanctions regime against Russia. And I think also people recognize that Russia is going to become even more dependent on China in the wake of this and any hopes that Japan had of driving a wedge between them I think are long gone. Japan is due to revise its national security strategy later this year and it seems likely that there’s going to be a big revision with respect to Russia. It also seems that the talks on the Northern Territories issue are going to be at the very least frozen for the time being.
Oscar Boyd 33:07
And for the last decade or two, most of the regional security talk in Japan has been focused on China and what it means to coexist with an increasingly assertive China. How will the war change the broader security dynamic in East Asia for Japan?
Noah Sneider 33:23
Yeah, it’s a big question. And obviously, the first concern that a lot of people have is how this will affect the situation around Taiwan, and China’s intentions vis-a-vis Taiwan. And I think there are two schools of thought that I hear, at least here in Tokyo. One is that this invasion by Russia actually might make a Chinese military move on Taiwan less likely. That the Chinese are seeing what has happened in terms of the international response, they’re seeing how Putin has been made a pariah overnight, and they’re taking note, and that’s not what the Chinese leadership ultimately wants. So that’s kind of one school of thought, and maybe a more hopeful school of thought. A second school of thought is that it might increase the risk that China takes action on Taiwan because it will leave the US and the West so distracted and bogged down in Europe that they won’t be able to enact the Indo-Pacific shift that everyone has been talking about. And also that China will have a chance to learn from Russia’s experience with sanctions, that China will be studying closely and will be preparing itself. I think there are a couple of other points worth mentioning. One is what this conflict will mean for nuclear proliferation. You know Ukraine, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, had one of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. And Ukraine, in fact, gave that up voluntarily in 1994 and signed what’s known as the Budapest Memorandum, which was a document both the US and Russia signed up to giving Ukraine sort of amorphous security guarantees in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear weapons. So there are worries that leaders and governments around the world will be looking at what’s happened and thinking that maybe actually having nuclear weapons is really the only true security guarantee. And the way we’re seeing that manifest here in Japan is a revival of discussions about what’s called nuclear weapons sharing.
Oscar Boyd 35:37
Yes, perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest voice in this discussion is former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who jumped on the opportunity to promote the idea of Japan entering some kind of NATO-style nuclear weapons sharing agreement, although the current Prime Minister Kishida quickly responded and shot the idea down, calling it “unacceptable.”
Noah Sneider 35:57
Exactly, exactly. But that debate is now happening here in Japan, which is also striking. And finally, I think there’s another piece, which is the relationship with the rest of Asia. I mean, if you look at the response to this conflict, it’s not only China that has taken Russia’s side or hasn’t joined in on the Western response. It’s also true of a lot of countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia. In particular India, which has a long standing relationship of its own with Russia, which buys most of its weapons from Russia. They’ve kind of taken a neutral stance on this conflict. So that is causing some tension in the so-called Quad grouping. And the same is true, I think, you know, with a lot of countries in Southeast Asia that aren’t necessarily ready to jump on the Western consensus position on this conflict. So that’s going to make Japanese diplomacy, Japanese foreign policy, a bit more challenging going forward.
Oscar Boyd 37:02
Well, on that note, Noah, thank you so much for joining me today.
Noah Sneider 37:05
Thank you for having me.
Oscar Boyd 37:15
That was Noah Sneider, the Tokyo bureau chief for The Economist. I’ve put links to his social media, including his War in Translation Twitter account, in the show notes. Do check that out if you think you can offer support.
Also in The Japan Times this week: Japan’s justice minister announced on Tuesday that the country has so far accepted just eight Ukrainian nationals displaced by the Russian invasion. The eight refugees all have relatives or acquaintances in Japan and have been granted an initial 90-day residence permit.
In South Korea, polls opened today to 44 million eligible voters as the country elects its next president. Results are expected early morning Korea Time on Thursday March 10. The new president will have to deal with a whole host of local diplomatic issues, including the country’s frosty relationship with Japan and a missile loving North Korea.
That’s it for this week. To keep up to date with Japan’s response to the war in Ukraine, do follow along and subscribe to The Japan Times. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please write us a review or rate us on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. We’ll be back next week. Until then, as always, podtsukaresama.