Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 60

Relations between Russia and Japan, already strained by recent setbacks in negotiations over a long-standing territorial dispute, took another hit last week when Japanese authorities moved toward lodging espionage charges against a former Russian trade official. According to reports out of Tokyo and Moscow, Aleksei Shchelkonogov could face charges for allegedly attempting, in the late 1990s, to obtain classified information about U.S. guided missile systems for fighter jets. Shchelkonogov, who at that time was a member of a Russian trade mission based in Japan, reportedly sought the classified information from a company that did contract work for the Japanese Self-Defense Force. The classified information in question was supplied to Japan by the United States under the joint security pact that binds the two countries. Several news sources in Japan have alleged that Shchelkonogov may have been working for the GRU at the time, which is Russia’s main military intelligence bureau.

The peculiarity of the circumstances surrounding the Shchelkonogov case has led some to suggest that the investigation is an essentially political affair that may be a reflection more of recent tensions in bilateral relations between Moscow and Tokyo than the basis of a real spying scandal. Shchelkonogov, for example, has long since departed from Japan. And given the fact that he also has diplomatic immunity, any prosecution of him would presumably have to take place in absentia. Sources in Japan have indicated, moreover, that the former Russian envoy had not actually managed to acquire any of the classified information that he is accused of seeking.

Against this background, Russia’s Foreign Ministry has charged that the espionage case is being “orchestrated by Japanese forces who want to go back to the Cold War environment” and who are opposed to improved relations with Russia. The ministry has also expressed regret over the emergence of the case, and has warned that it could ultimately have an adverse impact on broader Russian-Japanese ties. The Russian embassy in Tokyo issued a statement on March 22 calling the allegations against Shchelkonogov a “fabrication” and claiming that they are part and parcel of an “unhealthy campaign by powers” in Japan which do not want to see the two countries sign a peace treaty. “Although we do not desire a setback in the progress of building bilateral relations,” the statement said, “if such a case occurs it will be Japan’s responsibility” (AFP, March 23; AP, March 22, 25; Interfax, March 22, 25).

Whether Shchelkonogov is indeed guilty of seeking classified information while he was in Japan, there is much to support the Russian Foreign Ministry’s claim that the appearance of the charges may be related primarily to broader difficulties in Japanese-Russian relations. Negotiations between Russia and Japan on the pair of related issues that have remained the biggest obstacle to fully normalized relations–the Kuril Islands territorial dispute and the signing of a Japanese-Russian peace treaty–have suffered a series of setbacks in recent weeks. More to the point, perhaps, those difficulties appear to stem in part from Japan’s deepening domestic political woes, including Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s own plummeting popularity (see the Monitor, March 20). The resultant tensions between Russia and Japan on this score were in evidence yet again last week, when a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman denied Japanese claims that a summit meeting between Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin might take place in April. The same official complained that leading Japanese political figures have appeared lately to be calling into question the importance of relations between Japan and Russia. Against that background, the official expressed the hope that Japan’s domestic political battles would not turn out to have a “negative influence on the development of relations” between Russia and Japan (Interfax, March 20).