As Japan and Russia Agree to Build Ties, Syria Provides New Venue for Cooperation

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Japan has left the stage of the United Nations General Assembly with a promise from Russia to strengthen bilateral relations– and schedule a visit by President Vladimir Putin– as both nations take on larger roles in Syria.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Putin at the General Assembly to discuss strengthening the relationship between the two countries, which has been historically weak. Abe, who has recently been reelected and will keep his office for another three years, told reporters that his reelection “has built solid ground for me to work with Vladimir to push forward peace treaty negotiations.” Putin, meanwhile, teased a number of “joint projects,” saying he was “confident that Russia and Japan have high potential in economic cooperation.” They have agreed to meet once again during a number of scheduled summits leading up to the end of the year.

Russian NGO Interfax claims Japan is particularly interested in buying Russian oil. According to Toshihiko Fuji, a high-ranking member of Japan’s Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry, Japan is seeking to make the Russian share of their energy resource purchases much bigger. Russia currently accounts for 8% of Japan’s oil shipments.

Much stands in the way of a successful Russian-Japanese partnership. For one, the nations are still officially at war; they have never signed a peace treaty to end hostilities after World War II, though active military hostilities have, of course, ceased. Japan refuses to sign a peace treaty until Russia returns control of the Northern Territories to Japan, which the Soviet Union had invaded and colonized following World War II. The current Russian government believes these islands are part of the Russian map and exacerbated tensions with a visit to the region by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, which the Japanese government called “highly regrettable.”

Having an active territorial dispute with Russia made it unavoidable that the Japanese government would participate in sanctions on Russia following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and subsequent colonization of the Crimean peninsula. Putin noted at the UN this week that Russian-Japanese “trade has declined significantly” as a result.

In addition to territorial concerns and potential trade, however, the Russian and Japanese governments are adopting outsized roles in a completely different project: the Syrian Civil War. Abe announced during his General Assembly speech that the Japanese government would provide an enormous amount of funding to assist refugees, millions of which are currently fleeing and flooding Europe. $810 million would go directly to aid for refugees in Syria and Iraq, and another $750 million would be provided for infrastructure projects. Abe did not note directly that Japan has refused almost entirely to take in any refugees, but did admit “it may appear a roundabout root” to focus on rebuilding nations rather than taking in their destitute. “But fostering the abilities of each human being and cultivating from a grass-roots level each person’s capacity to fight against fear and want is in fact, the shortest path there,” he concluded.

Russia, meanwhile, has lend aid to Syria in the form of dozens of airstrikes in the past 24 hours. In his speech, President Vladimir Putin called for a coalition to unite against the Islamic State, comparing the threat to that of Nazi Germany, and rally around Bashar al-Assad, the head of Syria. Assad has been proven to have used chemical weapons on civilians and is widely considered a war criminal, but Putin insists he is a “legitimate” ruler and his stability is the only solution to the Syrian crisis. No evidence has surfaced that Russia’s airstrikes are targeting the Islamic State whatsoever; instead, video and reports surfacing from Syria suggest U.S.-allied anti-Assad forces have been targeted.

Whether Japan and Russia will work together in the Middle East remains to be seen, though another venue in which to potentially work together provides new conversations for Abe and Putin to conduct throughout the year.