Russian Foreign Policy and COVID-19
Interview with SPF Senior Research Fellow Taisuke Abiru

May 12, 2020

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the relationship between Japan and Russia?
 
The biggest impact that COVID-19 has had on Japan-Russia relations is that Prime Minister Abe had to cancel his scheduled visit to Moscow, where he planned to attend the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s WWII victory. He wanted to have another summit meeting with President Putin in order to reactivate the stalled negotiations on the signing of a peace treaty. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had to cancel his visit to Moscow.
 
In my view, there are two pillars for Japan’s foreign policy toward Russia. One is signing the peace treaty that would resolve the territorial issue between the two countries. The second pillar is essentially the China factor. Japan wants to improve its relationship with Russia in order to create a more favorable strategic environment in the region in order to contend with a rapidly rising China. When Prime Minister Abe returned to the government at the end of 2012, Russia also had a similar strategic view that China’s rapid rise may cause a future potential threat to Russia. In this strategic context, Prime Minister Abe began a more assertive foreign policy toward Russia.
 
One of the defining factors in the region is the relationship between Russia and China. How would you characterize this relationship and what are the key points of collaboration and contention?
 
Before that, let me explain how Japan-Russia relations have deteriorated. Unfortunately, after the crisis in Ukraine, the relationship between Russia and the U.S. deteriorated rapidly, and the U.S. and European countries imposed economic sanctions against Russia. Japan also joined in these sanctions, although the sanctions imposed by Japan were milder than those of the U.S. and Europe. This essentially pushed Russia into the arms of China. Russia had to improve its relationship with China and ultimately deepen its dependence on China, especially regarding the economy and technology.
 
After President Trump took power in the U.S., there was an expectation that the Trump administration would improve the relationship with Russia. However, due to several reasons including the alleged intervention by Russia into the U.S. presidential election in 2016, that expectation did not come to fruition, and now the U.S. designates not only China but also Russia as a revisionist power challenging the U.S.-led world order.
 
Actually, Russia has common interests with China, namely a hope to challenge and ultimately bring to an end the U.S.-led world order. However, Russia as a great power country always wants to preserve its own sovereignty in making decisions on internal and external policy. To maintain this freedom, Russia does not want too much dependence on China economically and politically, so I would say that the current Russia-China relationship is more than a strategic partnership but less than a formal military alliance.
 
The competition between China and the U.S. is another defining factor of global issues. How do you see Russia fitting into the ongoing competition between the U.S. and China, and what are Russia’s strategic interests in this case?
 
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, competition between the U.S. and China over global leadership has seriously intensified, and there is a view that in the near future some kind of new bipolar world between the U.S. and China will emerge. At this moment, Russia doesn’t have the option to worsen its relationship with China. However, as I mentioned, Russia wants to keep its own strategic independence not only from the U.S. but also from China and maintain its position as an independent strategic player in global politics. This dynamism will be the biggest challenge for Russia’s foreign policy in the coming decades.
 
Given the fact that this international situation is continuously evolving, what are some of the key points you’ll be watching moving forward?
 
First of all, I’ll be watching to see which country is the earliest one to recover from this pandemic. The earlier the better, and the country that can recover from this crisis earlier than others could take a more favorable and stronger position in global politics. Also, we will have to follow how the competition between the U.S. and China over global leadership continues to develop. This will inevitably affect global politics and international relations. Japan-Russia relations are no exception.
 

Additional links:

•  Profile for Taisuke Abiru available here.
•  For more from the International Peace and Security Department, visit the program page.

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