Russia is frequently in the news these days, but its diplomatic successes at the start of the new year have been rather limited. Denials of Moscow’s various misbehaviors aside, the most significant step over the just-concluded extended holiday season was President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan in mid-December (RT, December 15, 2016). That visit generated high expectations and rampant speculation, particularly considering the scarcity of his foreign trips of late. Preparations continued for many months under tight secrecy. And at that time, many observers interpreted the series of statements from Moscow regarding Russia’s absolute inflexibility on the territorial non-issue of the disputed Kurile Islands as preparations for a surprise (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 5, 2016).
Several Russian experts argued that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe had invested significant personal political capital into resolving the long-deadlocked bilateral dispute over the South Kurile Islands; it was unclear, however, whether Putin had any intention of reciprocating (Kommersant-Vlast, November 11, 2016; see EDM, December 13, 2016). The master plan in Moscow was to give Tokyo only the vaguest of promises—and to extract in return tangible concessions that would amount to a de facto abolition of the sanctions regime. Tokyo, however, had its own master plan long on promises. As a result, both leaders can now claim success—but neither has achieved anything close to the desired triumph.
Disappointment is more pronounced in Tokyo. Abe had clearly miscalculated, assuming that the protracted economic recession would make Russia so desperate to attract Japanese investments that it would be ready to compromise on the sensitive issue of sovereignty over tiny bits of its huge territory (Novaya Gazeta, December 17, 2016). Putin, meanwhile, assumed Abe so desperately needed a breakthrough that the entirely meaningless agreement to open “expert discussions on the conditions for starting consultations” on joint economic activity on the Kuriles would suffice for Russia to gain material fruits (Kommersant, December 15, 2016). He aggravated that miscalculation with demonstrations of toughness: The proposed gift of an Akita-Inu dog was turned down by the Kremlin; Putin arrived for the first face-to-face meeting three hours late; and he declined the persistent invitation to enjoy the famous hot springs in Nagato, Abe’s home town (Gazeta.ru, December 13, 2016; Newsru.com, December 15, 2016). The Japanese side can only see this behavior as deliberately rude, so the long list of carefully prepared memoranda of understanding and a provisional commitment to possible joint projects now looks as a concession too far.
One of the Japanese proposals was a gas pipeline from Sakhalin to Hokkaido. Abe had hoped that Putin would not be able to refuse this offer (Gazeta.ru, December 16, 2016). Japan’s leader knew that Gazprom loves nothing better than constructing hugely expensive pipelines, and he also suspected that Moscow was growing uncomfortable with its deepening dependency upon Beijing, which effectively holds Gazprom hostage because the much-trumpeted “presidential” gas contract on building the Sila Sibiri pipeline from the Kovykta and Chayanda “green-fields” cannot possibly be executed on schedule (Rosbalt, December 13, 2016). Putin, however, needs to continue to characterize the Russia-China partnership as progressing just fine, and he is also keen to exploit Japanese fears of this quasi-alliance. The deployment of Bal and Bastion anti-ship missile complexes on the disputed Kunashir and Iturup islands was aimed at accentuating these fears. Indeed, they made a stronger impression on Japan than Putin’s smiles (New Times, November 28, 2016).
China’s shadow loomed large over the Russian-Japanese summit; both parties were perfectly aware that Beijing disapproves of their rapprochement. In Moscow, mainstream pundits tried to camouflage this concern by alleging Washington was attempting to derail the deal and by spinning wild speculations about the United States’ purported plan to build a base on the Kurile Islands (Polit.ru, December 14, 2016). In reality, China’s tacit displeasure has already caused a curtailing of the traditionally strong ties between Russia and Vietnam, as the latter recognizes the need to diversify its relations and cultivates its own ties with the US (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 16, 2016). Moscow feels compelled to back China’s position in the legal disputes and military maneuvers in the South China Sea, and this emboldens Beijing to make such provocative gestures as snatching a US underwater drone from right under the nose of USNS Bowditch (RBC, December 17, 2016).
Moscow has high expectations about a forthcoming deterioration of China-US relations ranging from trade wars, as envisaged in the electoral rhetoric of President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign, to a US departure from the “one China” policy, and to cyber conflicts undermining the presumed US control over the Internet. Russia also has high hopes for the fast erosion of the sanctions regime despite the strong bipartisan support in the US Congress for President Barack Obama’s decision to extend it for another year (Newsru.com, January 14). The anticipation of a “beautiful friendship” is increased by Trump’s musings on the possible lifting of sanctions and of being able to achieve “really great things” with Russia in the struggle against terrorism (RBC, January 14, 2017). The Kremlin is inclined to dismiss statements on taking a tough stance against a hostile Russia —such as those by Rex Tillerson, James Mattis and other appointees to key positions in the Trump Cabinet—as empty motions necessary to pass their Congressional hearings (Kommersant, January 12).
But in this wave of optimism on US readiness to normalize relations with Moscow, Russian commentators conveniently omit the impact of the unfolding investigation into Russia’s interference in the US election campaign combined with the scandal about a supposed Russian “dossier” on Trump (Moscow Echo, January 14). Trump is still desperately trying to play all this down, but as the evidence mounts, the President-elect is being increasingly politically incentivized to deliver a punishing response to this unprecedented act of “hybrid” aggression against the US in order to erase the smudge on his legitimacy. As for sanctions, the plain reality is that the European Union has again extended them for another half year. And while preparing its package of “gifts” to Russia, Japan was careful not to deviate from this regime (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, December 16, 2016).
Putin anticipates playing on the sharpening China-US contradictions. But by playing dirty against Washington, he challenges an opponent of far superior power; while Beijing is not averse to taking advantage of Russia’s misfortunes. Putin also apparently refuses to see how Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo affects his country’s international standing, even in unsentimental Asia. Like a sultanistic leader, he seems to believe he is winning every diplomatic encounter and scoring in every test of political wills. Among his peers, he is justly recognized as a serial troublemaker, and he believes he excels at punching above his weight. But in fact, Putin keeps risking trouble Russia may be unable to stomach.