Why Japan should take a stand in NATO tensions with Russia
Japan is deeply worried about increasing tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and for good reason.
There are three key concerns. First, a Ukraine military crisis would divert European attention away from the Indo-Pacific region. Tokyo has welcomed the recent European deployments of naval ships to the region to counter China’s maritime assertiveness. Beijing’s ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” will certainly increase Chinese influence in the vast geographic space of Eurasia from Europe to the Pacific. So more European involvement in regional security and economic initiatives would help to develop more creative and moderate approaches to deal with China’s rise and encourage Beijing to be more restrained and open.
Before this trend could bear fruit, however, military conflict over Ukraine would cause the European members of NATO to re-focus attention on their immediate neighborhood to the detriment of East Asia.
Second, conflict between NATO and Russia will undoubtedly push Russia further towards China. The deterioration of relations between Russia and the West has already promoted security cooperation between Russia and China, undermining Japan’s security interests. Some Japanese commentators have begun arguing that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are coordinating their respective pressures on Ukraine and Taiwan to squeeze limited U.S. resources and weaken the United States. Although this conspiratorial view of Putin and Xi seems far-fetched, Tokyo certainly wants to avoid a situation that drives Moscow and Beijing closer together and decrease the influence of liberal democratic countries relative to authoritarian regimes.
Third, a Ukraine military crisis would impair Japan’s global strategy. Facing the rise of China at its doorstep, Japan has adopted a strategy that combines the enhancement of deterrence capabilities and the pursuit of dialogue. To implement this strategy effectively, Japan needs good partners in Northeast Asia, and Russia is a prime candidate. Tragically, a conflict between Russia and the United States would shatter the possibility of minimizing a potential Russian threat to Japan and developing a cooperative relationship with Russia for the foreseeable future.
Japan therefore has a keen interest in preventing an escalation of the current crisis, but this first demands an accurate understanding of how we got to this point. Two explanatory factors are critical: NATO’s eastward expansion and the nature of the Ukrainian crisis.
The issue of NATO’s eastward expansion dates back to Gorbachev’s days. Gorbachev through his perestroika policy embraced values in common with Western Europe; and he proposed in 1987 to 1989 a vision of a “common European Home,” hoping for a harmonious integration of the Soviet Union to Europe. In his final days, the Warsaw Pact was abolished in July 1991 and the Soviet Union disintegrated in December of that year. The newly born Russian Federation emerged with a natural expectation that NATO, which was to counter Warsaw Pact, would cease to exist because its enemy organization just disappeared.
However, East European countries, which had suffered as forced satellites of the Soviet Union, not only insisted on the preservation of NATO but began asking to join it. The Clinton administration faced the difficult task of mediating between the conflicting views of Russia and Eastern Europe. The first clash occurred during the Budapest NATO Summit in 1994. Strobe Talbot who guided Clinton’s Russia policy and Yevgeny Primakov the newly appointed foreign minister overcame that situation and concluded the NATO Russia Founding Act in May 1997. At the historic Madrid Summit in July 1997, Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic were invited to join NATO. For a decade thereafter, NATO and Russia maintained a fragile but acceptable coexistence based on the Partnership for Peace (PFP).
At its 2004 Istanbul Summit, NATO accepted the membership of the three Baltic States and four southern East European countries. With U.S.-Russia cooperation peaking in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, even Vladimir Putin did not object to the inclusion of former Soviet Republics into NATO. The Bucharest Summit in April 2008 ended the fragile harmony between NATO and Russia when NATO “agreed that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO.” Although French and German opposition did not allow offering a Membership Action Plan and considered it only as “the next step on their direct way to membership,” the Russian government asserted that Georgia and Ukraine’s membership is unacceptable. Putin warned that “Georgia and Ukraine’s entry is a direct threat to Russia,” signaling Moscow’s’s red-line.
In August 2008, democratically oriented Georgian President Mikheil Shaakshvily initiated military actions to enlarge Georgian influence in Ossetia; and Russia mobilized its troops to halt this operation. After this Russian military action, Georgia’s possibility to become a formal member of NATO diminished, but a broad range of practical cooperation between Georgia and NATO is continuing. The 2014 Ukrainian revolution then brought the question of NATO’s possible expansion to include Ukraine to the forefront.
Ukraine has a long history of complex identity. The eastern part of Ukraine including Kiev was to a large extent Russian speaking and religiously Orthodox and maintained close relations with Russia. Western Ukraine centered on Lvov was more under the Hapsburg Empire, and the people there spoke the Ukraine language and tended to be Catholics.
At the time of World War I and the Russian Revolution, Ukraine was thrown into turmoil under the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, but ultimately came under the governance of Bolshevik regime. When Hitler’s Germany invaded during World War II, Ukraine’s anti-Bolshevik nationalists used this occasion to gain Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union. This gamble did not work. Many pro-independence Ukrainian nationalists then sought refuge in Canada and the United States and established social networks to preserve Ukrainian identity. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 provided an opening for those Ukrainian nationalists abroad to regain their “legitimate” power in the homeland.
The February 2014 Maidan revolution led to the collapse of a delicate balance between pro-Russian and pro-European leaders in Ukraine. The ousting of pro-Russian president Victor Yanukovych from Kiev provoked Putin to re-establish Russian control of Crimea, which is deeply connected with Russian historical memory and identity, through military power and a political referendum. The care-taker Ukrainian government under Arseniy Yatsnyuk began to change the official language in favor of Ukrainian at the expense of Russian. This action triggered violent protests in Donetsk and Luhansk regions where Russian troops began to mobilize. The Minsk Protocol under the newly elected President Petro Poroshenko signed in September 2014 has failed to stabilize the situation.
Peace and stability of Donetsk and Luhansk depend on the safety and rights of about 650,000 ethnic Russians, who have dual Russian and Ukrainian passports. Putin cannot and will not let these people just to be Ukrainian-ized against their will.
Therefore, three things need to happen to stabilize the situation. First, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine since May 2019, needs to guarantee that the status-quo of 650,000 Russians shall be protected. Second, a diplomatic language needs to be found to de facto withdraw the Bucharest roadmap for Georgia and Ukraine’s possible NATO membership. Third and most importantly, an understanding needs to be reached that Ukraine becoming a buffer state between Western Europe and Russia serves the best interest not only for Russia but also for Europe.
The above analysis is only the view of one individual who has dealt with Russia for a half century first as a practitioner and then as an academic. But based on Japan’s long-standing relations with Russia from the early 17th century under the Tokugawa dynasty and several wars after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, I believe we need to analyze Russia from a realist point of view. Therefore, the best balancing power structure in Europe is to accept Ukraine as a solid buffer zone between Russia and NATO. Professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago made a public lecture in 2016 expressing precisely this realist perspective. I cannot agree more.
I do hope that the Kishida Government understands this view and will support it. If they accept this view, I have three policy recommendations. First, the Kishida Government should enter in serious dialogue with the United States, the major European powers, and NATO. Japan does not need to get into the operational details of every negotiation. But Tokyo should firmly present its view regarding the negative consequences of NATO’s 30 years of eastward expansion and the complexity of the Ukraine situation from a Russian perspective.
Second, Japan must enter into serious talks with Russia and convey the same positions that Japan articulates to Americans and Europeans. Japan’s effort to understand the Russian perspective could facilitate a Russo-Japanese dialogue and encourage Russia to become more flexible.
Third, if this diplomatic effort fails and Washington decides to introduce rigorous sanctions, Japan should preserve its ability to take an independent position. Depending on how the situation evolves, the options may vary. The moment of truth of the alliance might appear then. Even if Japanese policies differ from those of the United States, the basic cooperation among the world’s leading democracies in the G7 should and will continue. The G7 can demonstrate that divergent views can be accommodated through dialogue and can even cement relations by considering a variety of voices and perspectives. This is indeed the essence of diplomacy.