Japan’s Role to End the War in Ukraine: After Visiting Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, and Afghanistan

In February 2023, I published How to End the War in Ukraine: Limitation and Possibilities of Peace Mediation (Iwanami Shinso, in Japanese).

By Daisaku Higashi


Related Articles


In February 2023, I published How to End the War in Ukraine: Limitation and Possibilities of Peace Mediation (Iwanami Shinso, in Japanese). From February to late March 2023, I traveled to Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and South Sudan, where I delivered several lectures and met with high ranked officials of these governments, including many vice presidents. This article will discuss the main challenges for ending the war in Ukraine, as presented in my book, and my views on the role Japan can play in ending the war, based on my visits to the war-inflicted nations across the world.

The Three Challenges in Ending the War in Ukraine

In my recent book, I argued that there are three main challenges to end the war in Ukraine: (1) territorial dispute, (2) war crimes, and (3) wartime compensation and a new postwar security framework.

Regarding the territorial dispute, Russia currently claims it has already annexed the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson that were under its control since its invasion on February 24, 2022. Meanwhile, Ukraine insists that besides the above four regions, it will militarily regain all territories, including the Crimean Peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014. In this sense, there appears to be no room for any compromise between the two sides at this stage on the issue of territory.

When considering this territorial dispute, I focus on the peace talks between the Ukrainian and Russian negotiators that Turkey mediated on March 29, 2022, one month after the war began. In the talks, the Ukrainian side presented a peace proposal based on the four points; they were (1) withdrawal of Russian forces to the February 24 positions, (2) negotiate Crimea after ending the war, (3) Ukraine will not join NATO nor establish a NATO base, and (4) create a new security framework including Russia and the permanent members of the UN Security Council (P5).

The Russian delegation took this highly, and an U.S. senior government official later said that the Ukrainian and Russian delegations basically agreed on this proposal. In fact, a member of the Russian negotiation team at the time told the BBC that, with this proposal, both sides could claim that they won; Putin could explain domestically he pushed Ukraine to give up NATO membership, and the Ukrainian side could say they made the Russian troops withdraw to the February 24 positions.

Then, after the March 29 peace talks, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin stated that since Ukraine has come up with practical proposals, to increase mutual trust, a decision was made to reduce military activity around Kyiv, according to BBC news on March 30, 2022. In fact, the Russian troops began pulling out of the northern front of Kyiv. Then, the mass killing of civilians was discovered in the town of Bucha near Kyiv, and U.K. Prime minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Joe Biden called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to be prosecuted for war crimes. With this, Putin suspended negotiations, and it has not been held since. However, as an intense war of attrition continues, when the momentum for peace talks emerges again, I argue that the proposals Ukraine submitted on March 29, 2022 could become a base for settling negotiations.

It is noteworthy that until around June 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had claimed, “if we can make the Russian troops withdraw to the February 24 positions, it will be a great victory for the Ukrainian side.” Later, pushed by hardliners in the Ukrainian government, his statement shifted to “regain territory including Crimea through military force.” However, the reality is, even if Ukraine could regain territory including Crimea through military force, the war itself will not end as long as Russia continues to have the will and weapons to fight. This is because Russia could resume the ground combat or continue airstrikes on the Ukrainian mainland even after Ukraine regains its territory. In that sense, this war will never end unless Ukraine and Russia negotiate through a third country at some stage and reach a peace agreement.

Of course, in theory, the war would end if Ukraine forces advanced to Moscow and won unconditional surrender and toppled the Putin administration—just like the Allied Powers gained unconditional surrenders from Germany and Japan in World War II. However, attacking until gaining unconditional surrender from Russia, which possesses 6,000 nuclear weapons, could well lead to global nuclear warfare, and the U.S. and other Western nations do not want to go that far. In this sense, it is imperative to end this war at some point through peace talks so the entire human race would not be wiped out.

I am not contending that Ukraine should give up the Crimean Peninsula. Yet, I believe it is essential to also consider the option to separately discuss Crimea after ending the war, as Ukraine proposed on March 29, 2022. In other words, “withdrawal of Russian forces to the February 24 positions” is a realistic line for ending the war, which many countries in the world would probably approve, and Russia may also agree to in the end.

The second issue of “war crimes” is also an extremely tough one. Putin’s responsibility for this war is self-evident when he launched his unprovoked invasion. However, if President Putin’s arrest and punishment at the International Criminal Court (ICC) becomes the condition for a peace agreement, the war will not stop as long as he is in power. No leader would agree to peace, recognizing he or she would be punished. On the other hand, if Putin is arrested in a coup or is ousted or dies for some reason, there is a possibility the Russian successor presents him to the international tribunal (as in the case of the Serbian government sending former President Slobodan Milošević to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in exchange for Western financial support).

Regarding war crimes, when the U.S. intervened in Iraq and Afghanistan in the twenty-first century, the ICC neither investigated nor prosecuted potential war crimes, even though they were alleged by many human-right groups. There is also the case that no one has been prosecuted, even when Israel continues to occupy Gaza and the West Bank by ignoring the UN Security Council’s withdrawal resolution adopted in 1967, and civilians have been killed from the invasion and airstrikes on the Gaza strip. So far, those prosecuted by the ICC are mostly African leaders, and many leaders from emerging and developing countries feel the practice of the ICC is “unfair.”

In addition, for war crimes, Ukraine is currently demanding the prosecution of more than 20,000 Russians. If that is the condition for having a peace deal, even if Putin is ousted, his successor is likely to continue this war. To end the war, while eyeing Putin’s grip on power, there needs to be a pragmatic approach on the war crime issue. For example, after the war is over, a joint commission of Ukraine and Russia could be created to share and verify the facts of war crimes and work to ensure this will never happen again. Referring to the methods adopted by conflict-affected countries such as South Sudan and East Timor, the wisdom to overcome the war crime issue is vital. (Of course, if Ukraine can win “unconditional surrender” from Russia, it is theoretically possible to prosecute all war crime suspects. But for the reasons I have discussed, “unconditional surrender” is hard to achieve against Russia.)

Regarding the third issue of wartime compensation, if Russia is asked to pay reparations, even Putin’s successor may not agree. Therefore, creating a “Ukraine reconstruction trust fund” and having Russia make a huge contribution to the trust fund is one idea. This would be in line with the way Japan provided substantial assistance to China, South Korea, and Southeast Asian countries after World War II by providing Official Development Assistance (ODA), which had some implication of virtual war compensations. As for the future security framework, I argue that Ukraine’s March 29 proposal, which had an element of creating a “security framework that includes Russia” could be further elaborated.

Japan’s Role toward Ending the War


What role can Japan play to end this war? Given that the war is taking place in Europe, and Japan is imposing sanctions in step with other G7 nations this time, I estimate that it is difficult for Japan to directly mediate between Ukraine and Russia.

Meanwhile, in peace mediation of an ongoing war, it is extremely important for nations supporting the parties of the military conflicts, and thus have significant leverage, to share the goal on how to end the war and to persuade the conflicting parties. In the case of the war in Ukraine, it is the U.S., with its overwhelming military support, that has the leverage in Ukraine.

And it is China that has leverage on Russia, as it keeps buying Russian oil and gas and maintains close diplomatic relations. Japan can approach the U.S. and China with some principles of potential peace deals, including “withdrawal of Russia to the February 24 positions.” The U.S. and Japan have maintained close relations and there is a perspective that Japan will accelerate political dialogue with China. For China, I observe that a prolonged war and global economic recession or an escalation into a world war is not identified as its national interest. So, it is possible that China will approach Russia to bring the war to an end if the momentum for peace comes.

Thus, it is important to create an environment in which the Third World nations such as emerging countries and developing countries, that have not joined the sanctions by the West, can create international momentum to end this war, with the withdrawal of Russian troops to the February 24 line. I argue that this is the greatest role Japan can play.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has been providing sincere support to countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, working closely with the local people to help them become self-reliant and stable. Japan has gained the trust and reputation as a “peaceful nation,” and this is a huge “diplomatic asset” for Japan, compared with other G7 nations. Using this advantage, Japan can share the view that “Invading other countries and expanding territory violates the most fundamental rule of the international community. If we allow this type of invasion, we will return to the nineteenth-century jungle world.” Japan also can play a leading role in building a global consensus that the situation should be reversed to the pre-February 24 Russian invasion. By Japan’s continuous engagement with Third World countries even after the G7 summit, many Third World countries would influence China, which is sensitive to the moves of these nations; China may be motivated to persuade Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. The greatest role Japan could play is to unite the G7 nations while gaining Third World countries’ support to generate global momentum for withdrawing Russian troops from Ukraine.

What I Learned in Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, and Afghanistan

My visits to three states, such as Saudi Arabia, South Sudan, and Afghanistan in 2023 seem to prove my arguments about the roles of Japan. In early February 2023, I stayed in Afghanistan as a UN senior peacebuilding consultant and met with top UN officials, including UN Special Representative for Afghanistan Roza Otunbayeva and UN Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov, and with senior members of the Taliban interim government. I also gave speeches several times in Kabul and exchanged views. Then I visited Saudi Arabia from March 1 to 9. Thanks to the efforts of the Japanese Embassy there, I delivered lectures at many places, including the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the Institute of Diplomatic Studies, and exchanged views with senior government officials in individual meetings. Then from March 10 to 18, I visited South Sudan in an official mission assigned by Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, and had discussions with top government officials and UN leaders in South Sudan, including First Vice President Riek Machar, Vice President Taban Deng Gai, and UN Special Representative for South Sudan Nicholas Hayson. I also gave speeches at the Juba University and South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation (SSBC) and had opportunities to discuss with young people and journalists.

Although I do not have enough pages to write a detailed report in this article, Japan’s support for “self-reliance and stability” was deeply appreciated by the locals in all countries. For example, since gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan became a failed state after many civil wars. Over the past 12 years, Japan has provided consistent support for building infrastructure and enhancing human capacities. The peace agreement of 2018, realized through Japan’s financial support for the mediation of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), East Africa’s regional organization, has been sustained until now. In May 2022, the Freedom Bridge across the Nile River was completed with grant aid from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and First Vice President Machar attended the opening ceremony and stressed, “we will never forget our gratitude to Japan.” In February 2023, a new water supply project by JICA was completed, and drinking water is available to the half of 1 million residents in the capital of Juba; before establishing this water system by JICA, only 100,000 residents here had access to clean water. While most Western countries stopped providing development assistance for South Sudan when the second civil war began in 2016, Japan has been resilient for a decade to complete the project and created a basis for the livelihood of the local people. The local residents and government officials greatly appreciated this.

In Afghanistan, the late Dr. Tetsu Nakamura and PMS (Peace Japan Medical Service) has restored 24,000 hectares of land to farmland, which became desert by drought 20 years ago. Every Afghan knows that thanks to this irrigation project, about 1 million people are currently making a living in these agriculture fields. A project by PMS, JICA, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is preparing to expand this irrigation project across Afghanistan. When I introduced the achievements of this irrigation project by PMS in a speech at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the IsDB, both based in Saudi Arabia, they strongly supported the project and offered that they would be very happy to be involved in the project. I then invited the OIC’s Special Emissary for Afghanistan Tariq Bakheet and the head of the IsDB’s Afghanistan Humanitarian Trust Fund Mohammad Al-Saati to Japan in June 2023 with the financial support of Sophia University to discuss details of the cooperation. I fully recognized that Saudi Arabia, the leader of the OIC, is willing to cooperate with Japan to help Afghanistan become self-reliant and stable.

Based on these experiences, I am convinced that maintaining and expanding Japan’s support to the Third World to solve global issues such as global warming, drought, infections, and regional conflicts that one country alone cannot solve, will result in increasing friends of Japan; and increasing friends of Japan will strengthen Japan’s security as well.

This is a translation of the Japanese article published in vol. 79 (May/Jun. 2023) of the Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.

Daisaku Higashi is the professor of international relations at Sophia University in Tokyo. In 1993, he joined the NHK (Japan’s national broadcaster) and became the Program Director. Then, he earned a Ph.D. in political science at the University of British Columbia and specializes in peacebuilding and mediation. After serving as the Team Leader for Reconciliation and Reintegration in UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (2009-2010), an Associate Professor at the University of Tokyo, and a Minister-Counsellor in the Japanese mission to the UN (2012-2014), he took up the current post in 2016.


Related Articles