Sundays in Russia, like Sundays in most of the Western world, are usually not news generating days. However, today Moscow broke that rule and provided Russia-watchers with a couple of very weighty international affairs developments that I will analyze in this article on Japan and in another article later today on what the termination of the INF Treaty will mean for Russian military doctrine, namely reaching for the Holy Grail of a first strike, a decapitating strike capability against the United States in the foreseeable future.
What these two developments today have in common is how the very harsh messages are being delivered: not by the head of state, Vladimir Putin, but by members of his inner circle, his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the knock-out blow on Japanese expectations of a peace treaty so long as Shinzo Abe is prime minister, and the head of news on Russian broadcasting, Dmitry Kiselyov, as regards the detailed explanation of Russian plans for arms deployment following the end of the INF Treaty.
I have said a number of times that the USA and Europe have been lulled into disbelieving war is possible because of Putin’s very gentlemanly demeanor and mild language when speaking to us, even as we impose potentially crippling sanctions on his country and wage an information war against him personally and against his country. Just a couple of weeks ago, I urged him to bang the table from time to time in the manner of his Soviet predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, to get our proper attention so that we might bestir ourselves and demand that our mass media and political classes correct course before our current policies lead to nuclear confrontation with Moscow.
True, in his recent appearance before the bicameral Russian legislature for his annual state-of-the nation address, Vladimir Putin delivered a tougher line, but without spelling out his intentions in detail. He remains a practitioner of Teddy Roosevelt’s maxim: “speak softly but carry a big stick.”
What Putin has done, however, is to empower people in his close circle to say what he cannot allow himself as head of state.
In that connection, I call attention here to Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister. Lavrov has always taken his marching orders from the boss. When he reported directly to Putin in the first two terms of office, he took a tough stance. When he reported to Dmitry Medvedev during the interim presidency, Lavrov was very accommodating to the West. And now, especially in the past couple of weeks, Lavrov has shown his teeth to the West.
We saw that during his Q&A at the Munich Security Conference a week ago, when the MSC director Ischinger pitched to him a typically snide “question” from a Washington Post journalist congratulating Russia for taking charge in Syria and asking how the Kremlin intended to prevent Assad from perpetrating further massacres against his people. Lavrov did not hesitate for a minute: he brushed off the question, saying he had no reason to respond since the journalist would write what he wanted regardless of what Lavrov said.
That particular exchange delighted viewers back in Moscow and was the main item on the MSC reported in the Russian media for the next two days. The frosty exchange between US Vice President Pence and Chancellor Angela Merkel was deemed less significant by the Russians, who were simply pleased to see their government hit back at Western verbal aggression.
Today’s news from Sergei Lavrov is effectively a put-down of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has thoroughly exhausted the patience of the Russians over his insistence that a peace treaty with Russia is just within reach. Listening to Abe, one would assume that his friend Vladimir just needed a bit more coaxing, yet another glass of sake at friendly one-on-one summits to be brought to sign on the dotted line a draft peace treaty that returns the South Kurile Islands to Japan. Per Tokyo, the Russians should be happy they were not seeking reparations for the occupation of the islands since 1945.
In an article on Abe’s presentation as honored guest of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok last autumn, I explained that the Japanese Prime Minister was odd-man-out, that he alone among the key speakers described cooperation with Russia in terms harking back to the 1970s and ‘80s, when Japan was a technological and economic powerhouse and Russia (the Soviet Union) was stagnating and poor.
South Korea, China, Mongolia all delivered presentations highlighting the mutuality of their bilateral relations with Russia serving both parties equally. Moreover, Abe did not in any way address the existential concern of the Russians that conceding the Kuriles to Japan would compromise their national security given that the US military alliance with Tokyo would be used to station American bases there and further extend their encirclement of Russia by the global missile defense system.
Lavrov’s remarks on Japanese-Russian relations today came at the very end of a lengthy television interview which began with Russian-Vietnamese relations, but also addressed more broadly relations with Asian countries, this ahead of his planned visit to Hanoi, followed by a trip to China for a joint meeting with the foreign ministers of China and India. The interview went on to cover a whole range of issues, US-Russian relations figuring prominently and taking up perhaps a third of the time. It ended, as I say, with Japanese-Russian relations.
In all subjects covered, including and particularly, the issue of Japan and a peace treaty, Lavrov spoke with lapidary clarity, without any diplomatic evasiveness. I offer below my translation of the transcript issued in Russian today on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website:
Interview of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with “Vietnam Television” and with the Chinese television channels CTV and Phoenix, 24 February 2019
Question: The Japanese side has expressed the hope that during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan this June both sides will sign a frame agreement about a peace treaty. Do you believe that this plan can be realized? Moreover, Japan’s plans for the installation of the US missile defense are one of the important problems for the Russian side. Do you think that diplomatic efforts can remove this threat?
Lavrov: As regards the announcement by the Japanese side that they have plans with respect to the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan for participation in the summit of the G-20 and for holding the next regular meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe, I leave that to their consciences.
No such agreements have been reached, nor could any have been reached, because we never are parties to any artificial deadlines relating to any problems whatsoever. We have repeatedly explained this to our Japanese colleagues.
The last time I did was not so long ago in Munich, when I met with my colleague, Minister of Foreign Affairs Kono. Moreover, no one ever has seen any draft frame agreements. I don’t know what our Japanese neighbors have in mind.
Secondly, our position is very simple. In order to solve complex issues, you have to ensure not just a suitable atmosphere but also real content of relations in economics, politics, international affairs. If we look at the real situation, PM Abe appears before his Parliament and says that he is absolutely planning to solve the question of a peace treaty on Japanese terms. Honestly, I don’t know how he arrived at this conviction.
Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor I, nor anyone else from among those participating in the Russian-Japanese consultations provided our Japanese colleagues with any basis for statements like this. The fact that in Singapore, at the sidelines of the Summit meeting of the G—20, Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe said that it was necessary to speed up work on a peace treaty on the basis of the 1956 Declaration tells you the opposite: we are conducting the dialogue not on Japanese conditions but on the conditions of this document There it is clearly stated: first conclude a peace treaty.
And this, as I have said many times, means the need for our Japanese neighbors to acknowledge the results of the Second World War in their entirely, including the sovereignty of the Russian Federation over all the Kurile Islands.
It is rather strange that our Japanese colleagues do not want to agree with the results of the Second World War in the form in which they are set down in the UN Charter. The Charter states that everything which was done by the Victorious Powers is not open to discussion.
Even if the Japanese have their own interpretation of the San Francisco Peace Treaty and of other documents concerning this region, they ratified the UN Charter. It is not proper to revoke your ratification. That will not work.
Speaking more broadly, there was an agreement first of all to create a new quality of relations. Japan has joined in perhaps not all but in a whole range of sanctions against the Russian Federation. This can hardly be considered to be a friendly position. In the UN, Japan votes in solidarity with the USA on all resolutions directed against Russia. It comes out against or abstains from voting on drafts proposed by the Russian Federation. In general, it coordinates its position in the UN with Washington.
We do not oppose Japan’s cooperating with other countries, but the USA has called Russia its main enemy, naturally together with China.
Question: Is American influence on Japan felt?
Lavrov: I don’t know to what extent such influence exists but surely this is being discussed. Recently it was announced that at the end of May US President Donald Trump intends to visit Japan. One of the topics for negotiation will be the issues of a peace treaty with the Russian Federation. If the lack of independence of Japan is demonstrated to such a degree, then there is nothing for me to add.
The fact that the Japanese have a military alliance with the USA is also a major factor. The Americans have the right to locate their armed forces wherever they like in Japan and already are installing there their missile defense system, which creates risks both for Russia and for the Chinese People’s Republic (we have repeatedly spoken about this).
I repeat: this is happening under conditions when the USA declares us to be its main enemy. It would be very wrong if we did not see that instead of the stated objective this does not improve but greatly worsens the quality of our relations.
We are ready to continue our dialogue with our neighbor. We see a lot that is promising. We have very good cultural and humanitarian cooperation: the “Russian Seasons,” the Festival of Russian Culture enjoy great popularity in Japan. We have some pretty good joint economic projects. But this is by no means a favor to the Russian Federation. These are projects in which Japanese business is interested.
It would be even more interested in the Russian economy but, as I understand, it is being held back by the official line. From time to time we get signals that as soon as a peace treaty is signed on Japanese terms, they will send us manna from heaven in the form of Japanese investments. That is not what we have agreed.
And lastly: among the agreements on how we need to improve the quality of relations there is a point about the need to create in public opinion a positive image of one another. As was set down in Russian-Japanese agreements in years gone by, the decision on a peace treaty should be such that it is supported by the peoples of both countries. However, when in Japan we see that the terms “Northern territories” and “illegal occupation” are included not only in school textbooks but in many government documents which underpin the activity of ministries and departments – this is precisely working in the opposite direction.
Recently, as you know, the Japanese government is speaking a lot publicly about the idea that it is nearly achieving its desired result. If you follow the reaction this elicits in Russia, you know that polls of public opinion show how wrong it is to act the way our Japanese colleagues are doing, trying to impose their view of this solution on us. And to add insult to injury, they promise not to seek reparations.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin has said in his address this year to the Federal Assembly on 20 February, we will continue our detailed work and achieve an outcome in agreements which allow us to create conditions for such a solution of the problem of a peace treaty which will be acceptable to the peoples of both countries. In the meantime we see that these conditions are totally absent.