In the aftermath of Mori Yoshiro's little visit to Russia last week (Link) I was asked what, if anything, Abe Shinzo hopes to achieve by continuing his now indirect engagement with Vladimir Putin.
My stock answer has been that Japan's Russia diplomacy runs down two tight corridors:
1) efforts to gain a return of the Northern Territories and
2) the development of Russian energy sources for importation into Japan.
These are still open questions so Japanese diplomats and politicians just keep on shuttling, riding on the carryover from earlier rapprochement efforts and from out of a desperate search for energy, particularly LNG, post-3/11 and Fukushimi Daiichi.
Having said the above, I wondered whether there was not a back door to a substantial and radical recalibration of Russia's position. Let say that after the annexation of Crimea and the disruption of the Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine Vladimir Putin has absolutely unassailable Russian imperial expansionist credentials. The cost, and it has been huge, of acquiring these credentials has been the Western Alliance's opprobrium, which has closed all kinds of doors to Putin, his siloviki cronies and his country (there is also the very real possibility of shooting breaking out soon in between Russian and NATO forces). What if Putin were to take all the momentum of the moment and pivot, cutting a deal with Abe Shinzo for the return of part or even all of the Northern Territories, in return for, let us say, the Japanese government's abandonment of U.S.-led efforts to isolate Russia? A grateful Japan then goes overboard in its support of the development of Russian Far East hydrocarbon resources, enriching Putin and his henchmen and markedly increasing Japan's dependence on Russia for its energy. Meanwhile, at the other end of Eurasia, Putin's sudden strategic abandonment of Russia's hold on the Northern Territories raises insane and stupid hopes regarding the potential return to Germany of Kaliningrad, a dream most modern Germans did not know they even had (Karelia, of course, was won fair and square in the good fight against the dreaded Finns and so is not a part of the grand strategy). The Kaliningrad gambit, transparently manipulative as it would be, disrupts EuroAmerican unity just when the Western Alliance was getting over the reality of Europe's dependency on Russian energy.
[An aside, but as I told MK last week, Russian strategists are probably not serious in playing China against Japan or China against Europe as regards access to Russian energy resources. If possible, Russians want everyone to be dependent upon them.]
The above is a crazed confection of paranoia and geostrategy (sometimes these two items are difficult to disambiguate) -- but Putin must be telling Abe something in order to keep the Japanese side hoping beyond hope for an sudden, improbable ippon gachi.