Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 223

Moscow and Tokyo seemed to have put their military relations back on an even keel this week as the two sides sought, during a visit to Japan by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev, to put a recent military espionage scandal behind them. Sergeev’s visit to Tokyo, the second by a Russian defense minister in the post-Soviet era, marked the first high-level contact between the military establishments of the two countries since Japanese authorities arrested a Japanese officer this past September on charges of passing classified information to Moscow. The spy wrangle generated headlines and considerable outrage in Japan, particularly after the man accused of recruiting the Japanese officer–the military attache at the Russian embassy in Tokyo–refused to answer questions by Japanese authorities and instead fled the country. In the wake of the incident, the Japanese government canceled several planned, high-level contacts between defense officials of the two countries. The spy wrangle briefly harmed bilateral relations between the two countries and appeared to halt some momentum that had been building in the area of Russian-Japanese military-to-military contacts (see the Monitor, September 11, 21).

Some in Moscow had to be wondering about the likely success of Sergeev’s trip when it was learned that the trial of the accused Japanese spy–a researcher at the Defense Agency’s National Institute for Defense Studies–was scheduled for the day before Sergeev’s arrival. But the trial, in which former lieutenant commander Shigehiro Hagisaki pleaded guilty to the espionage charges, appears to have had little effect on Sergeev’s talks with Japanese leaders. According to Japanese sources, Sergeev expressed his “regrets” for the incident during talks on November 28 with Japanese Defense Agency head Kazuo Torashima, and said that he hoped it would not have a negative impact on Japanese-Russian relations (Mainichi Shimbun, Japan Times, November 28; Reuters, November 29).

Despite the fact that most Russian observers believe Sergeev’s days as Russian defense chief to be numbered, the former rocket forces commander appeared to have been authorized to discuss a wide array of issues during his Tokyo visit. Not surprisingly, Sergeev’s Russian delegation and its Japanese counterpart moved to schedule a new round of military contacts between the two countries. Their talks produced a protocol committing Russian and Japanese naval forces to partake in joint search and rescue exercises at sea. Sergeev and Torashima also confirmed their intention to implement what was described as a whole range of measures aimed at developing military cooperation. Specifically, visits are planned in the near future by the deputy head of Japan’s Defense Agency and air force chief of staff to Russia; a top Russian Ground Forces officer will likewise travel to Japan (Itar-Tass, November 28).

But other issues discussed in Tokyo appeared to have had more overriding importance. According to one Russian account, for example, the main task of Sergeev’s visit was to warn Japan against following through with the deployment of a proposed U.S.-Japanese theater missile defense system in the Asia Pacific (Vremya MN, November 29). While it was unclear if that was indeed the focus of Sergeev’s visit, there was no question that the Russian marshal strongly reiterated Moscow’s “categorical” opposition to the missile defense system in remarks to journalists on November 28. Sergeev said that the proposed system would be deployed “in the immediate vicinity of Russia’s borders” and that it “may be capable of intercepting ballistic missiles.” He suggested that deployment of the proposed system could provoke Russia or other countries in the region–presumably China and possibly North Korea–to develop “more sophisticated offensive missile systems” in response. This, he said, “will lead to a new round of the arms race and as a result undermine regional and strategic stability” (Russian agencies, November 28).

Sergeev also used his visit to underscore a topic the Japanese probably found more to their liking. He said that, as a result of planned Russian troop reductions, the number of forces Russia currently has deployed in the Far Eastern and Siberian Military Districts will be cut by some 20 percent. Sergeev apparently provided few details as to how the cuts will be implemented, but did say that over 500 units stationed in those two districts would undergo organizational reform, and that about 170 of them would be subjected to personnel cuts. Implementation of a military reform in 2001-2005 will “decrease the number of army groupings in the East and optimize their structure and composition,” he told reporters. Sergeev also said that the army has no plans to reduce its presence in Central Asia on the basis of what the Russian government says are security concerns related to “military instability caused by [Afghanistan’s] Taliban and others” (RIA, Itar-Tass, November 28; Reuters, November 29).

A fourth theme of Sergeev’s visit involved arms sales. Despite little past indication that the Japanese have been interested in purchasing Russian weaponry, Sergeev made it clear on the eve of his departure for Tokyo that Moscow hoped to establish a program of military-technical cooperation. Indeed, Sergeev also brought up possible Russian arms sales to North Korea as well. He told the Kyodo news agency in a written interview just prior to his departure for Tokyo that Moscow is also keen to expand its military-technical cooperation with Japan. He provided few details of what his country might have in mind. And General Leonid Ivashov, the hardline head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s department for international military cooperation, said while in Tokyo with Sergeev that the Russian Defense Minister will also travel sometime in the near future to Tehran–once again to promote Russian arms sales. The accent on arms dealings by both Sergeev and Ivashov may have reflected the twin facts that the Kremlin has apparently decided to pursue arms exports with renewed vigor, and that the Defense Ministry has for the first time been given at least nominal oversight of Russian efforts in this area of potentially lucrative business (AFP, November 28; Russia TV,, November 27; Reuters, November 28).

But, however successful Sergeev’s visit to Tokyo may have been, and however much it may have boosted military cooperation between the two countries, it appears not to have had an immediate impact on the issue which is key to continued friendly relations between the two countries: negotiations over a peace treaty and parallel talks aimed at resolving the longstanding Kuril Islands territorial dispute. That, at least, was suggested by the Russian Foreign Ministry’s announcement yesterday–while Sergeev was still in Tokyo–that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s visit to Moscow for summit talks with Vladimir Putin will not take place this year, but sometime in the first quarter of 2001. The Japanese had pushed hard for another summit meeting this year in hopes that the two countries could meet an earlier arranged deadline for signing the peace treaty. A Japanese delegation did travel to Moscow this week, however, for talks on the islands dispute that could at least pave the way for a visit to Russia by Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono next month (AFP, November 28; Reuters, November 29).