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Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace” and the Annexation of Crimea

By Tetsuo Kotani

April 22, 2014


Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a test of Japan’s “proactive contribution to peace.” Japan adopted its first national security strategy in December 2013, and its strategic priority is to produce a stable and predictable security environment through proactive engagement in international affairs. Given Russia’s clear infringement of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, Japan needs to collaborate with the international community to protect the liberal, rule-based international order.

Although the Japanese government has stated that it would not acknowledge any change of status quo by force and imposed economic sanctions on Russia with other group of seven (G-7) countries, thus far Tokyo’s response has been largely passive rather than proactive, aside from its offer of $1.5 billion in aid to Ukraine. There are several reasons for the passive reaction. First, Tokyo and Moscow have been negotiating their territorial dispute over the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands as part of an effort to conclude a peace treaty unresolved since World War II. To further this cause, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has met President Vladimir Putin five times over the past year. Second, trade and investment between Japan and Russia are growing. Natural gas imports from Russia have become particularly important for Japan because all of its nuclear power plants were shut down following the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster. Third, Russia is an important partner for Japan in balancing the rise of China. This is one of the reasons that Japan now has a two-plus-two meeting mechanism with Russia, although the countries have not concluded a peace treaty. Finally, according to a popular Japanese perspective, the annexation of Crimea resulted from the European Union’s failure to help ensure Ukraine’s autonomy rather than Moscow’s adventurism. For example, many Japanese think that the EU may have caused Putin to lose face and provoked him to take action, chiefly by moving toward endorsing Ukraine’s provisional government during the Sochi Olympics.

Japan should adopt a more proactive approach to this situation by working with the international community to punish Russia for its invasion of foreign territory. This action is a reminder that Russia does not always comply with existing international law and norms. For example, it still justifies the occupation of the Northern Territories by appealing to secret agreements made at the Yalta Conference, held on the Crimea Peninsula in February 1945. Japan’s reluctant stance on Crimea is unlikely to provide dividends in territorial negotiations with Russia; it will instead simply undermine the ruled-based international order.

In addition, Japan should not send the wrong message to Russia on economic sanctions. Japanese businesses are concerned about the effects of economic sanctions, whereas the country’s political leaders are downplaying them. If Japan is not serious about sanctions, they will not shape Moscow’s external behavior. Russia is “pivoting” to Asia and sees Japan as an important partner. Japan’s economic sanctions could thus have a significant impact. By contrast, the position of the EU is weak because of its dependence on Russian energy.

The annexation of Crimea showed how a gray-zone scenario short of war can turn into a fait accompli. Moscow used disguised troops and imposed a national referendum to occupy a foreign territory without war, justifying the entire process under the name of self-determination. The international community was just a bystander in these events. China is creating a similar gray-zone environment in the East China Sea by sending ships and aircraft to the vicinity of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands on a regular basis. If Japan appears reluctant to punish Russia for annexing Crimea, China may be emboldened to make the color of gray thicker around the Senkakus.

Japan should also take a proactive role on the Crimea issue from the viewpoint of its alliance with the United States. The U.S. rebalancing strategy presumes that there will be relative stability outside of Asia. Although the Obama administration has sought to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East still presents numerous challenges. In particular, the civil war in Syria and the nuclear program of Iran remain sources of instability. The Russian annexation of Crimea is now destabilizing Eastern Europe, and if the situation in other parts of the world becomes worse, the United States may need to reassess its rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. Japanese collaboration with the United States on the Crimea issue may help the United States to maintain this policy.

There are widespread concerns in Japan about the United States’ commitment to Japan's defense. President Obama did not pursue military options even after Syria crossed the red line he had set on the use of chemical weapons. With regard to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he gave verbal warnings to Putin but ruled out any military options from the beginning. The red lines that President Obama has set in Crimea are now a “red carpet” on which Russia is walking calmly. Although the United States has no treaty obligation to protect Syria or Ukraine, this red carpet diplomacy makes Japan and other U.S. treaty allies in Asia nervous. Because potential challengers to peace may be encouraged by any decline in U.S. credibility, while coordinating policies on Crimea, Japan should remind the United States of its role as the “world’s policeman.”

For Japan, the Crimean issue is not a fire on the other side of the river. It is a challenge to the liberal, rule-based international order with profound implications for Asian affairs. It is thus an important matter for the Japan-U.S. alliance as well as for Japan’s security policy. The concept of a “proactive contribution to peace” should not be just rhetoric but a reality. The tensions in eastern Ukraine are still high. As a member of the G-7 but not a member of NATO, Japan can play a unique role in addressing this issue, particularly given its economic leverage in the Russian Far East.


Tetsuo Kotani is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.


This is one of five essays in the roundtable "Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis." Download all five essays in PDF format or access them online below.



1. Crimea: A Silver Lining for the United States’ Asian Allies?

    By Rory Medcalf

2. India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas”

    By Brahma Chellaney

3. Taiwan Is No Crimea, But...

    By Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang

4. Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace” and the Annexation of Crimea

    By Tetsuo Kotani

5. The Korean Angle on Crimean Fallout: America’s Perception Gap

    By Seong-hyon Lee