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After Abe's charm offensive, new Japan leader needs Russia reset

US debate over 'soft' vs.' hard' approach to Putin has consequences for Asia

Shinzo Abe, then Japan's prime minister, and Russian President Vladimir Putin make a joint statement after a meeting in Moscow in 2019. New Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will need to learn from Abe's long experience in dealing with Putin.

TOKYO -- As a debate rages in Washington over whether to court or confront Russia, Japan's new leader will need to learn from his predecessor Shinzo Abe's experience in dealing with Vladimir Putin.

Last month, opposition activist Alexei Navalny suddenly lost consciousness aboard a plane over Russia and had to be put into a medically induced coma after what Western observers believe was an assassination attempt with a nerve agent. Moscow denies any involvement.

Besides targeting critics, Putin's Russia is allegedly again attempting to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election this year, while supporting Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's repressive regime that is facing massive street protests.

Yet despite of all this, a bipartisan group of more than 100 prominent retired U.S. government officials and other foreign policy experts, including former Secretary of State George Shultz and former Secretary of Defense William Perry, sparked a debate last month with a call for rapprochement with Russia.

The U.S. will face the risk of nuclear war and become unable to deal with conflicts in regions such as the Middle East if it continues its current adversarial stance toward Russia, their signed open letter published in Politico warned. Washington should consider easing sanctions on Russia to promote a thaw in bilateral relations, it said.

U.S.-Russia tensions have risen since Moscow's annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in 2014. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the sole nuclear arms cutback accord between the two countries, is due to expire in February.

Worried about the situation, the writers see the November election as an opportunity to reset the U.S.-Russian relationship, according to an American foreign policy expert familiar with the background of the letter.

It provoked a backlash from U.S. government officials advocating a hard-line against Russia, as well as current and former leaders and cabinet ministers in the Baltic nations, Ukraine and East European countries exposed to Russian threats. They called for the U.S. to strengthen pressure on Moscow in letters contributed to Politico.

The 33 U.S. figures who signed the call for increasing pressure on Russia include David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state in charge of human rights and other issues from 2008 to 2009, and John Kornblum, a former ambassador to Germany.

This debate is likely to have repercussions for post-election U.S. diplomacy. But Japan and Europe will find that it is not just America's problem.

Which side should countries and regions such as Japan and Europe take? Calls for rapprochement between the U.S. and Russia are correct as a diagnosis in the sense that confrontation, if left unattended, will have grave consequences for the world. But the correct prescription for a new choice is the hard-line stance, for two reasons.

First, Russia is more likely to take advantage of a conciliatory stance by the U.S. and its allies and toughen its own posture.

"It is wrong to assume if the U.S. takes [a] reconciliatory approach, Russia will reciprocate by changing its attitude to be softer," said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "They don't. Russia respects power." Borshchevskaya said.

"We also have to acknowledge that Russia is determined to undermine the U.S.-led global order, together with China," she added.

Borshchevskaya also said it is important for Washington to stand firm against Moscow and draw clear lines that should not be crossed. "Then, Russia will think twice about pushing," she said. "For example, the decision to put U.S. troops in Poland drew a negative reaction from Moscow because Russia understands Poland is a clear military line they cannot cross."

The second reason is that a conciliatory approach could send the message that the U.S. and its allies have in effect accepted Russia's annexation of Crimea. China, therefore, might become emboldened and feel it can take a tougher stance toward Hong Kong and Taiwan without facing consequences.

The U.S. experts who signed the letter in favor of rapprochement are aware of such risks. And yet they consider it necessary to drive a wedge between Russia and China. As China represents the biggest threat, the U.S. should pursue ways of drawing Russia in rather than pushing it toward Beijing, said a retired senior U.S. government official who signed the letter.

While this is reasonable from a geopolitical point of view, it is unfortunately unrealistic. Putin believes that stronger relations with China will provide him with a layer of protection. Putin must be aware of the potential threat coming from an assertive China, but for now, the U.S. poses a more serious and real challenge to the Russian leader.

Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's diplomacy demonstrated the difficulty of extracting concessions from Russia through a conciliatory approach. Abe met Putin 27 times and established a cordial personal relationship.

Japan's diplomacy toward Russia had two main purposes, according to an aide to Abe. The first was to discuss with Putin how to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute over what Tokyo calls the Northern Territories, part of the Kuril Islands, seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of World War II. Second, by strengthening diplomatic and security ties with Russia, Abe sought to prevent Moscow and Beijing from forming a united front and using territorial and historical grievances to pressure Japan.

According to Japanese government sources, China has made secret offers to Russia several times starting around 2012, when Japan nationalized some of the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands. The proposal was that China should back Russia on the Northern Territories dispute and Russia should side with China over the Senkakus. But perhaps because of Abe's close ties with Putin, Russia did not accept the Chinese offers.

Yet Abe's diplomacy failed to bring about a visible shift in Russia's position and create an Asian security environment favorable to Japan. No progress was made in the territorial negotiations, and while Russia has not joined with China against Japan, the convergence of the two giants has only quickened. Therefore, the new government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga should learn from Abe's record and apply these lessons to its diplomacy toward Russia.

"Peeling Russia and China apart will be hard," said Yu Koizumi, assistant professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo.

"For Putin, who wants to protect his regime, deepening Russia's axis relationship with China is less risky and more beneficial," Koizumi said. "Unlike the U.S., China neither meddles in other countries' internal affairs nor attempts to democratize states that formerly belonged to the Soviet Union."

Hardened by a history of invasions, from the Mongols to Napoleon's army to the Nazis, Russia never drops its guard nor misses signs of weakness in other countries. It will take more than smiles to win cooperation from Putin.

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