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The Case of Skripal and Japan

Why the Land of the Rising Sun has not expelled Russian diplomats

The Case of Skripal and Japan
Photo: Alexander Shcherbak / TASS

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
In March of this year, leading Western countries began a coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats in connection with the accusation of Russia from British Prime Minister Therese May in allegedly using her chemical weapons in an attempt to assassinate the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. More than 20 countries sent over 100 Russian diplomats, and only the United States expelled 60 people. These actions were filed in Europe and the United States as a manifestation of international solidarity in response to Moscow's aggressive actions. Of the G7 countries, only Japan refrained from expelling Russian diplomats. Moreover, at first official Tokyo avoided and unfolded in the West an unbridled campaign of condemnation of Russia. This caused a wave of criticism of Shinzo Abe's administration both inside the country and abroad. The Japanese government was accused of being "out of step with the rest of the world's democracies" in the "Skripal case".

For example, the Japanese official newspaper, the Japan Times newspaper, wrote on this occasion in an 27 March issue: "Britain's international partners have reacted properly to what British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called" the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence agents. " However, there is one notable exception. Despite the fact that the Japanese government submitted the same evidence, it refused to directly accuse Russia, remaining the only member of the Group of Seven who did not support the UK accusation and did not expel Russian officials. "

Further, the newspaper regretfully states that instead, in a telephone conversation with the Russian leader 19 March, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe simply stated that "the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and, above all, it is important to establish the facts." Abe used the same telephone call to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his victory in the presidential elections in Russia and to express the desire for closer cooperation.

Such an inarticulate reaction from Tokyo forced Therese May to immediately request a phone call from Shinzo Abe 20 March. The purpose of the call was to encourage Japan to make a more rigid statement at the meeting of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, scheduled for the next day, with his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono in Tokyo. However, to the displeasure of supporters of a tough approach to Russia at a meeting of high-ranking diplomats of the two countries, Kono only repeated Abe's neutral words. Moreover, the meeting of the foreign ministers took place in a relaxed atmosphere. In response to Kono's joke that the Russian delegation brought with it an unthinkable snowfall, Lavrov responded with his joke: we did not interfere in your election, so we decided to intervene in your weather. Kono also gave his Russian colleague a cake on the occasion of his birthday.

They did not stay aloof from the attacks on the Abe administration and other leading newspapers in Japan, demanding that it immediately join other countries in taking concrete measures to punish Moscow for the "Skripal affair". In this regard, the right-conservative "Sankei Shimbun", which broke out a series of articles on this topic, especially tried. In particular, on its pages in its repertoire was made by the former Sovietologist Hiroshi Kimura, now in honorary professors of the University of Hokkaido Prefecture.

In his article published in the issue of 12.04.2018, he estimates the "Skripal case" neither more nor less as questioning Japan's entire policy towards Russia. The Japanese professor frankly writes that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with the help of building trust relations between the leaders of Japan and Russia, is striving to implement his plans for the return of these territories in the northern territories (the four islands of the southern Kuril Islands - EastRussia). Therefore, it takes a negative stance on the sanctions that G-7 (the G-7) imposed against Russia because of the annexation of the Crimea. But now, according to Kimura, in connection with the "Skripal case" Japan faces the need to make an important decision in its policy towards Russia.

Other Japanese commentators are also unanimous in their view that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's desire not to aggravate relations with Moscow in connection with the "Skripal case" is due to hopes of getting concessions from her in a territorial dispute over the southern Kurils. The above-mentioned Japan Times points out directly that the reason for the Japanese government's restraint is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe does not want anything to interfere with his desire for a territorial deal with Russia. In May, he will travel to Russia, where he will meet with Putin in the 21 time. According to the newspaper, this visit will be the culmination of Abe's "new approach" to Russia. Announced in May 2016, this policy assumes the use of economic incentives and "personal trust relations" of leaders to find a solution to the territorial dispute in the country, which will make it possible to sign a peace treaty.

During the forthcoming talks with Putin, Abe specifically hopes for a breakthrough in joint economic activities on the disputed islands. Five priority areas of this activity have already been selected, but the parties still have to agree on the legal basis of the projects. However, the publication emphasizes, this is not so simple, because Japan requires the creation of a special right regime that would allow Japanese actors to operate on the islands without recognizing Russia's sovereignty. Japan Times frankly writes that although these projects are small-scale, their significance will be that they will allow the return of the Japanese presence to the islands for the first time after, according to the newspaper, their occupation by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. According to Abe's calculations, the restoration of Japanese influence on the islands can serve as the first step towards a final return of the territory.

True, the publication makes a reservation, even if Japan had a real chance to return the islands, the lack of solidarity (with the countries of the West in the "case of Skripal" - EastRussia) on the part of the Abe administration would be deplorable. However, the situation is aggravated by the fact that Abe does not have a real prospect of achieving a breakthrough. Indeed, on the eve of his arrival in Japan in April, Lavrov reiterated the Russian government's position that any joint projects should be implemented in accordance with Russian legislation. Instead of focusing on their fruitless efforts to bring the four northern islands back to create their historical heritage, Abe should focus on demonstrating that Japan is a reliable security partner, and not just a "friend only in good weather," concludes the publication.

Against the backdrop of the chorus of the Japanese critics of Russia, and at the same time of their own government, about the "Skripal case" a lone solo "not in cash" was performed by a well-known retired politician Yukio Hatoyama. As leader of the then Democratic Party of Japan, he led the Japanese government from 16 September 2009 on 4 June 2010. The former prime minister shared on the Web a personal opinion on the "case of Skripal." In his Twitter Hatoyama wrote that the whole story is not accidental. He stressed the fact that a scandal occurred not long before the World Cup, which will be held in Russia in the summer of 2018. The Japanese figure also recalls that the events in Ukraine happened just before the Olympics in Sochi. Hatoyama notes that Russia did not have motives for killing Skripal, and points out that it has no reserves of gas used against it in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. According to Hatoyama, the "Skripal case" is used by British Prime Minister Theresa May solely to attack criticism of Russian President Putin.

And yet, apparently, the Abe administration could not stand the pressure from outside and joined other members of the Group of Seven on 17 April, agreeing that it was Russia that was probably behind the attack on Skrypal. In a statement published on that day, G-7 foreign ministers endorsed the UK's conclusion that "there is no plausible alternative explanation", except that Russia is responsible for the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Julia in Salisbury 4 March. However, Foreign Minister Taro Kono later said on the same day in Tokyo that Japan still hoped that all the facts of the incident would become known through further investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the British police. At the same time, Kono stressed that Japan does not intend to follow other members of G-7 in the expulsion of Russian diplomats because of the incident.

The paradox of the situation is that, at the height of the fierce anti-Russian campaign for the "Skripal case", in which, although on a limited scale, Japan participates, in late March, Russia lifted a ban on the import of seafood from this country. It was introduced in connection with the Fuksima-1 nuclear power plant accident in March 2011 due to the danger of their radiation contamination. And this despite the fact that despite urgent requests from Tokyo, more than twenty countries, including China, South Korea, and the European Union, still retain a full or partial ban on the importation of Japanese seafood.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the Moscow Security Conference in early April that many countries that sent Russian diplomats because of the so-called "business of Skripal" "turned their hands". In his words, this is done to demonize Russia. Lavrov's words can be fully attributed to Japan, which, although it did not expel Russian diplomats, nevertheless, officially and unconditionally, condemned Russia on this "matter" as a result of pressure from outside.

Such a move is unlikely to contribute to the creation of a favorable atmosphere for further negotiations on the settlement of territorial negotiations and the conclusion of a peace treaty between the two countries. Including during the upcoming meetings between Putin and Abe in Moscow and St. Petersburg in May this year.
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