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As Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson gamely fended off questions about antiracism in children’s books during her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Ukraine continued its defiance of Russia while retaking a Kyiv suburb, and the White House prepared to launch President Joe Biden to Europe to find an offramp for Moscow’s belligerence, another story got buried in the mess.
In fact, while most of Washington watched the World War II-era’s Western Front, the Eastern Front has suddenly sparked some concern. And with recent events between Japan and Russia, Biden may have a sleeper foreign policy crisis on his hands in a place he didn’t expect.
Frustrated by Japan’s sanctions of Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on Monday of this week notified its counterparts in Tokyo that World War II peace treaty talks are over for now. On Tuesday, Japan reacted as expected, declaring such an end to talks “completely unacceptable,” about as strong as you get in diplo-speak.
It is true that the Soviet Union, Japan, and Japan didn’t actually agree to a peace treaty. The same goes for the United States, which technically continues war with North Korea even though active fighting ended in 1953. Moscow and Tokyo made a 1956 declaration of peace, which permitted cultural and economic trades to continue. Diplomats also reached a settlement on four isolated islands that were seized by the Soviets in the closing days of World War II. In Russia—and the Soviet Union before—they are the Kurils; in Japan, they’re the Northern Territories.
Russia clearly doesn’t have the military bandwidth to launch a second front in its quest to rebuild the former Soviet Union—if not the Russian Empire itself. It knows that it is able to shake analysts around Tokyo and elsewhere. Technically, post-World War II Japan isn’t allowed to have a military and nominally relies on foreign might. Over time however, Western resistance towards a Japanese military force has faded. Tokyo now enjoys a defense posture that is guided by the West.
An errant Russian strike on Japan could lead to the United States entering a war of attrition. Biden pledged that he would not join American forces in this conflict. It could coerce Washington to back up with force its rhetoric that Moscow is engaging in “war crimes” (language that is unhelpful, both sides concede, because it ultimately demands international action).
None of that reassured Japan last week, though, when two waves of Russian warships navigated Japan’s Tsugaru Strait—as is allowed and in plain view of Japan’s officials—as Moscow seemed to move backup forces toward Ukraine. According to DefenseNews, the four ships are the entirety of Russia’s Pacific Command’s amphibious fleet, which suggests Moscow is realizing it needs backup over in Vladivostok.
Which is why Russia’s decision to warn Japan that its de factoPeace is in danger, and with it comes a screech of the diplomatic record player. Russia has a lot on its plates as it mobilizes forces to support the NATO headquarters and confronts unified Europe. Japan’s sanctions have been escalating, and following the West’s lead, Japan revoked Russia’s trading loophole and said it would start taking Ukrainian refugees.
But there’s always a risk for Washington, especially when it is distracted. Most of D.C.’s political class are watching Judge Jackson’s hearings with a mix of pride, disgust, and disbelief that elected Senators are dealing in such different worlds, temporarily drawing some attention away from Ukraine. You’re seeing strategists in both parties tell clients that the results of this fall’s U.S. elections will not hinge on Ukraine. Inflation is slamming American families, and they’re looking for someone to blame. At least, interest in war appears to be at its highest point in America.
Russian President Vladimir Putin could make one more move at the Eastern Front of former Soviet Union. And that is to draw the United States into another World War, one that it’s obligated to join. Decades-old detente is attractive for the liberal post-war world, but if the last months have taught us anything, it’s that Moscow has little appreciation for that stasis. Washington should pay attention to the Pacific corner that Japan and Russia share.
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