The U.S. and European Negotiations with Russia and the Puzzling Japanese Diplomacy
Since the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the beginning of the fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed militants and the Ukrainian government, Ukraine has been subject to constant Russian military intervention.
As the Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Jens Stoltenberg pointed out, the Russian military threat has already become the “new normal” for European security after 2014. Since 2021, a large number of Russian troops have gathered near the Ukrainian border, greatly raising the level of the crisis surrounding Ukraine.
At the time of writing, the number of Russian troops near the Ukrainian border has reached 150,000, spread across Russia and Belarus, leaving Ukraine with about two-thirds of its border surrounded by Russian forces. It is truly the “biggest military exercise since the end of the Cold War” (Mr. Stoltenberg), and an unprecedented threat to European security. The United States and Europe share the understanding that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen at any time, and predictions of the date of a Russian invasion have come to the fore by the minute.
In such an extreme situation, the U.S. and European countries are continuing desperate diplomatic negotiations to dissuade Russia from aggression. This article provides an overview of how the Western nations are responding to this crisis.
Conflict over the ‘Promise’ of Eastward Expansion
The draft treaty with the U.S. and NATO announced by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on December 17, 2021, has become the basis for negotiations with Russia by the U.S. and Europe. The demands included legal guarantees to end NATO’s eastward expansion, a halt to military exercises around Russia, and a return to the status of military deployments in Europe “before May 27, 1997,” meaning the removal of military presence, among other items. The U.S. and Europe received this request from Russia with great hesitation.
What this “May 27, 1997” means for post-Cold War European security requires some explanation. On this day, Russia under the Yeltsin administration signed agreements to strengthen the relationship with NATO including the NATO-Russia Founding Act, and the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council (PJC) (later upgraded to the NATO-Russia Council in 2002) was established as a liaison between NATO and Russia.
But more importantly, NATO required Russia not to oppose subsequent NATO expansion in exchange for signing this agreement. In fact, later, in 1999, when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, Russia did not protest.
Furthermore, in 2002, Russia and NATO under the Putin administration signed the Rome Declaration. This advocated for NATO and Russia to respond to new threats and challenges as “equal partners,” and effectively pave the way for the former Soviet Union Baltic states to join NATO.
For this reason, it was NATO’s understanding that Russia, albeit unwillingly, acquiesced NATO’s policy of eastern expansion by signing the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the Rome Declaration of 2002, in exchange for building a relationship with NATO. However, Putin’s position gradually changed after that. Especially since the late 2000s, he began repeating the now-famous assertion that the U.S. and European countries broke their promise made to Russia after the Cold War not to expand NATO.
This “promise” is said to have been made by then German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher among others in the context of negotiations over the treatment of the East German region at the time of German unification. There was a clash between the NATO countries’ assertions that such a promise was not made in anticipation of the eastern expansion of NATO and Russia’s assertion that there was a “promise” of no expansion that covered Central and Eastern European countries which were under the influence of the Soviet Union. This has been the subject of intense controversy to this day.
However, even if there were Western leaders who made such a promise during the process of German unification, NATO’s understanding was that this was overridden by the NATO-Russia agreements mentioned above. Even today, there are many NATO member states who argue that it is unacceptable that Russia has become so hostile to NATO’s eastern expansion, ignoring the context of the two documents it has signed.
In addition, the Central and Eastern European countries that joined NATO after the end of the Cold War possess a strong sense of opposition against Russia’s perception. These countries have joined NATO of their own will, and their main purpose is to secure their countries’ security by escaping from Russia’s threat and joining a military alliance with the U.S. It is indeed the presence of Russia itself that drove Central and Eastern Europe into NATO.
In January of this year, NATO responded in writing to the Russian proposal as follows: “No other partner has been offered a comparable relationship or a similar institutional framework. Yet, Russia has broken the trust at the core of our corporation and challenged the fundamental principles of the global and Euro Atlantic security architecture.” From the perspective of the NATO countries, it is Russia itself that deceived NATO.
Gap in Security Order
In the December proposal, Russia demanded that NATO not expand further while pointing to Ukraine. However, from the perspective of countries belonging to NATO, this was unacceptable for two reasons.
The first reason is that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was not a pressing issue at all. At the NATO Summit in Bucharest in April 2008, NATO confirmed that Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO in the future. However, as for Georgia, Russia effectively controlled South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a result of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008. Furthermore, in 2014, Russia occupied Ukraine’s the Crimean Peninsula, and it is constantly fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
There was a tacit understanding within NATO that it was impossible for the two countries to formally join NATO without being able to come out of this situation. For this reason, both countries have made repeated efforts to promote reforms, which NATO requires countries entering the pact to implement, such as parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, and civilian control over the military, but such reforms were only halfway for both countries.
The Ukrainian government itself recognizes that it is not in a position to join NATO immediately. However, Russia asserted that Ukraine’s accession to NATO was imminent and that it was a threat to Russia and threatened Ukraine by mobilizing an army of 150,000. As will be discussed later, in the face of Russia’s actions, NATO countries have suspicions that Russia’s true motive was not to freeze NATO expansion, but something else.
The second reason Russia’s proposal was unacceptable to the U.S. and European countries is that it was an attempt to fundamentally change the European security order, in which the Soviet Union and even Russia itself have long participated, as Russia desires.
The concept of “the freedom of states to choose their own security arrangements,” has been around since the 1975 Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) Helsinki Accords during the Cold War. It was an extremely important principle that formed the basis of European security.
The same principle was later confirmed in the 1999 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Istanbul Document and the 2010 OSCE Astana Commemorative Declaration. Again, it is important to point out that Russia itself is a party to the Helsinki, Istanbul and Astana documents.
On the other hand, Russia attaches great importance to the Istanbul Declaration and the Astana Declaration for reasons completely different from those of the Western nations. This is because both documents include the sentence that no state “will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States.” Russia has occasionally referred to this sentence, arguing that NATO expansion violates this provision.
Nonetheless, in both documents, there is a statement immediately after this sentence that no state “can consider any part of the OSCE area as its sphere of influence.” So the more Russia cites the above documents, the more it comes back to hit Russia like a boomerang.
At any event, Russia and the Western nations are going in circles using the Istanbul and Astana documents as the basis for their arguments but citing different sections to criticize each other. The responses to Russia by the U.S. and NATO in January, and the second reply by Russia to the U.S. and NATO in February, were exactly the kind of exchanges described above.
What has emerged through this series of crises is the existence of an irreconcilable perception gap between Russia and the Western nations regarding the Eurasian security order. This is not limited to recognition of where the “promise” of NATO’s eastward expansion comes from, but what points are emphasized and what needs to be changed in the security-related agreements between Russia and the Western nations, and why NATO expanded eastward, and whether it is a threat to Russia.
In all of these, the NATO countries and Russia have decidedly different perceptions. Furthermore, Russia is using unprecedented military coercion as means to demand changes to the existing Eurasian security order. At this point, the gap in values between Russia and the Western nations has become decisive.
The issue of the fulfillment of Minsk II
Meanwhile, there have been persistent speculations that Russia’s true objectives lie elsewhere, not the freezing of NATO’s eastward expansion or the prohibition of the deployment of ground-based medium- and short-range missiles outside one’s own territory, as it had proposed in December. It is believed that President Putin is fully aware that the December proposal is completely unacceptable to NATO, and that he is making difficult demands in order to turn the negotiations to his advantage.
In fact, since February, when French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz took the lead in negotiations with Russia, Russia had brought up new elements that had not been included in the Russian draft treaty; it was the Minsk II agreement that was signed in 2015 by France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine.
The agreement lays out a path for the implementation of a ceasefire and peace in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. It includes a wide range of content, including an immediate ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, monitoring by the OSCE, and the implementation of constitutional reforms stipulating decentralization. The problem, however, is the huge gap between Russia and Ukraine’s positions on the specific implementations of the agreement.
Ukraine claimed that the agreement put Ukraine in a disadvantageous position. The agreement, which would grant special statuses to certain regions, especially the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, could weaken the Ukrainian government’s influence in the region and strengthen Russia’s influence. This was a difficult point for Ukraine to accept.
On the other hand, Russia criticized the current Ukrainian government for obstructing the implementation of Minsk II, even though the Ukrainian government alone bears the obligations and responsibilities of the agreement. For this reason, negotiations at the “Normandy Format,” in which Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine participate, and the “Trilateral Contact Group (TCG),” which consists of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE, that aims to promote the implementation of the Minsk II, have long been at a standstill.
When German Chancellor Scholz met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on February 14, he pledged that Ukraine would make efforts to realize Minsk II. Furthermore, President Putin also said after his meeting with Chancellor Scholz on the following day, that the Minsk II should serve as a “foundation” for finding a solution to break through the current tensions. As a result, there is a growing understanding in the U.S. and Europe that the point of compromise for the current crisis is the implementation of the Minsk II.
For President Zelensky, a commitment to the Minsk agreements could be a risky gamble. The president initially refused to negotiate directly with separatist militants in the east, and many Ukrainians also supported his policy. If France and Germany join Russia in intensifying pressure on Ukraine, forcing the Ukrainian government to negotiate with the militants, President Zelensky may suddenly lose domestic support.
Moreover, if the implementation of Minsk II proceeds at Russia’s pace, eastern Ukraine would be de facto cut off from Ukraine and Russia’s strong influence could extend there. It is not surprising that the weakening of Ukraine brought about in this way could be Russia’s point of compromise.
The situation is becoming more complicated by the day. On February 15, Russia’s lower house adopted a resolution requesting President Putin to recognize “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” as independent states, as declared by the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The U.S. and Europe have criticized the resolution, saying that the independence of the two republics is a complete violation of the Minsk agreements, and the course of negotiations to implement the agreements remains chaotic.
Japan’s Position as a Member of G7
In the February 17 document, Russia severely criticized the U.S. and European countries for failing to adequately respond to Russia’s concerns and held a tone of an ultimatum.
The situation is in a critical state. Since the end of last year, the U.S. and Europe have repeatedly vowed to impose large-scale economic sanctions against Russia in the event that Russia goes ahead with the military invasion of Ukraine.
In contrast to their response to the 2014 occupation of Crimea, which started with lighter sanctions that gradually became stronger, the Western nations changed their tactics by imposing large-scale economic sanctions from the outset to contain Russian military actions. Japan, as a member of the Group of Seven (G7), is naturally expected to participate in the economic sanctions, but the Japanese government has been extremely slow to act in the face of the growing crisis since last year.
It should be noted here that the Japanese government’s policy toward Russia was initially regarded as puzzling by Europe. Japan has the Northern Territories issue with Russia, and it is a victim of the change of the status quo by Russia’s armed force.
For European countries, it is almost impossible to comprehend Japan’s position; even after witnessing the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea and Donbas, why is Japan not taking a strong stance against Russia in step with the West? Why would Japan continue to believe that Russia, which is effectively taking control of regions of its neighboring countries one after another, would give special treatment to Japan and return the Northern Territories?
Of course, even among European countries, there are those such as Germany and Italy that tend to take a soft route toward Russia. However, in the face of the current situation, the sense of crisis in Europe has heightened significantly. In the event of Russia’s military invasion, it would be unavoidable for Western countries to take action, and Japan should have the self-awareness that as a member of the G7, it would be extremely difficult to turn a blind eye.
However, Japan’s response to date has been nothing but inconsistent. On February 14, the G7 Finance Ministers jointly declared that in the event of Russian aggression, they would “take a prompt, coordinated and strong response.” A similar direction was confirmed in the first teleconference between Prime Minister Kishida and President Zelensky. On the same day, however, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi took part in the Japan-Russia trade and economic committee teleconference.
Japan’s behavior, which was extremely careful of avoiding damaging its relationship with Russia, is at odds with the Japanese government’s policy of supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and condemnation of use of force to change the status quo. Moreover, it could seriously undermine Japan’s relationship with the rest of the G7 members and damage Japan’s position in the international community.
Japan tends to be extremely reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia, fearing the disruption of a dialogue with Russia. It is important to keep in mind that the Western nations have taken the position that it is entirely possible to impose sanctions to Russia and keep a dialogue with it at the same time. The time has come for Japan to reaffirm its position as a member of the G7 and review its diplomatic approach.
This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in the April 2022 issue of Seiron magazine.
Atsuko Higashino is a professor at University of Tsukuba. She received her master’s degree from Keio University Graduate School of Law majoring in political science and her Ph.D. from the Department of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Birmingham. She is an expert in Europe international politics and a co-editor of “European Integration: From Two World Wars to Brexit” (in Japanese, from Minerva Shobo).