TOKYO -- The Japanese government is moving to impose additional visa restrictions and asset freezes on figures connected to Russian President Vladimir Putin's administration and its intervention in Ukraine.
The new sanctions would bring Japan in line with the U.S. and the European Union, which have toughened their response to Russian meddling. Tokyo will remain open to dialogue with Moscow in hopes of reclaiming Russian-controlled islands. But Putin's proposed visit to Japan this fall is looking increasingly doubtful.
A cease-fire between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists still holds, but the situation in the eastern part of the former Soviet republic remains volatile. Blaming Moscow for not doing enough to support the armistice, America and the EU have lobbed another round of sanctions at Russia's banking and energy sectors. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has decided to do the same ahead of his appearance at the United Nations General Assembly.
Tokyo is preparing to deny visas to more Russian government insiders and add new Russian figures, along with high-ranking pro-Russian separatists, to targets of asset freezes in Japan. Import restrictions, now limited to products originating in Russian-annexed Crimea, may be expanded.
The Ukrainian crisis is sure to be high on the agenda for world leaders gathering at the United Nations this month. Japan has tried to appear in lockstep with the rest of the Group of Seven on the issue. "If the prime minister were to go to New York with nothing to offer, his commitment to solidarity would likely be called into question," said a senior Japanese foreign ministry official.
Eager to end decades of wrangling over Russian-held islands Japan calls the Northern Territories, Abe's government has taken care not to alienate Moscow even as the Ukrainian situation has escalated. Tokyo ensured that its first few rounds of sanctions had a minimal impact. And the new ones "will inflict little real pain on Russia," according to a government source. An announcement scheduled for Friday has been postponed out of deference to Moscow.
Tokyo is treading on eggshells around Russia in fear of jeopardizing an agreement with Moscow regarding a visit by Putin this fall. Abe's government reckons that a summit would build momentum for progress on resolving the territorial dispute. But no date for the trip has been set. Undaunted, some in the government see the option of an amicable postponement.
"At this point, it's hard to see a visit to Japan in the fall, but that wouldn't necessarily mean that it would be off for good," a source says.
Tokyo is trying to arrange a meeting at the UN between Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. There is speculation they may take another stab at scheduling Putin's visit.