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Abe's Russian diplomacy draws sneers in Moscow, baffles West

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of officials in a Moscow suburb Aug. 5.   © Reuters

MOSCOW -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is taking diplomatic risks with little prospect of a payoff in his push to improve Japan's relations with Russia.

     Moscow shows no serious interest in strategic diplomacy with Tokyo, while Western leaders wonder what Abe is trying to accomplish by playing a futile diplomatic game with Vladimir Putin, whom they see as the world's No. 1 troublemaker at the moment.

No cards to play

Abe's government has been trying to finalize a visit by Putin this year to jump-start talks over a group of islands off Hokkaido that are claimed by Japan but under Russian control. Russia snubbed Abe on Aug. 10, announcing a detailed plan to develop the islands, which the Soviet Union took in the closing days of World War II. The move demonstrates Moscow's determination to strengthen its hold on the disputed islands. Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has said he will visit the area.

     A Russian official said his government is moving ahead with its development planning of the Far East. Moscow doesn't need to give consideration to Tokyo, because Japan has gone along with the U.S. and Europe in punishing Russia over the Ukraine issue, he added.

     The Kremlin appears to have given up on better ties with Japan three months ago. On May 9, Putin held a ceremony in Moscow to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany. Western leaders boycotted the ceremony in protest against Russia's seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region by force.

     Russian leaders wanted to see whether Abe would go his own way and attend the event, as he did the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, which many Western leaders also skipped. Abe maintained until the last minute that he wanted to attend the May ceremony. But Abe eventually backed out, partly because he was scheduled to visit the U.S. shortly before the event.

All Greek to me

Abe's decision led the Kremlin to conclude Japan has no foreign policy independent of the U.S., and therefore does not have to be taken seriously. Abe tried to make up for the setback by inviting Sergei Naryshkin, a Putin confidant and speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, to visit Japan.  Abe held talks at a Tokyo hotel with Naryshkin, whom Western nations have slapped with a travel ban in retaliation for Russia's intervention in Ukraine.

     A Russian official who accompanied Naryshkin on his trip said Russian diplomats smiled wryly when they heard an Abe aide say Japan was serious about improving its ties with Russia and Abe had won U.S. President Barack Obama's approval to promote a bilateral dialogue.

     From Russia's perspective, there are many parallels between Japan's diplomatic position and that of Greece. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who was at odds with his colleagues in the European Union over Greece's debt crisis, visited Russia twice this year to try to gain leverage at the bargaining table.

     In his meetings with Tsipras, Putin made diplomatic gestures indicating he wanted deeper bilateral ties, but gave no sign that he was willing to provide Athens with economic aid. Tsipras repeatedly objected to European sanctions against Russia, but a Russian official said Moscow knew Greece had no ability or will to veto the EU sanctions. Well aware of Greece's weak hand, Putin simply used Tsipras' move as a means to put pressure on the EU.

Boxed in

For Putin, a visit to Japan would be useful, at least as a way of showing Russia is not internationally isolated; it would help him put diplomatic pressure on the West.

     The Obama administration, for its part, has informed the Japanese government it opposes a Putin visit. Europe is also concerned about Abe's diplomatic tango with Moscow. During her visit to Japan in March, German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to talk Abe out of attending Russia's war commemoration in May. Referring to Russia's annexation of Crimea, Merkel warned that overlooking Putin's redrawing of international borders by force would encourage China to do the same in Asia.

     Russia plans joint military drills with China in the Sea of Japan in late August, and Putin has accepted Chinese President Xi Jinping's invitation to attend a Sept. 3 ceremony in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over Japan.

     Medvedev may visit the southern Kurils, which Japan calls the Northern Territories, as early as August to highlight Russia's control over the disputed islands.

     Summing up European sentiment on Abe's diplomacy toward Russia, one diplomat said it is hard to understand what the Japanese leader is trying to achieve by begging Putin to visit Tokyo. Mindful of the EU's divisions over Ukraine, the diplomat expressed concern about possible discord among the Group of Seven nations over how to deal with Moscow.

     Abe's actions toward Russia in the coming months could affect the outcome of the G-7 summit chaired by Japan next year.

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