East Asian Divergence on Ukraine

Despite strong relations with the US, Japan and South Korea have diverged on their reaction to the Ukraine Crisis. While Japan has chosen solidarity and enforced similar sanctions against Russia in the wake of Crimea's annexation, South Korea has maintained a degree of foreign policy independence and sought to strengthen economic ties with Moscow while the competition is low.


Differing Foreign Dependencies

Despite its strength as a formidable regional power with a developed foreign policy, Japan has fallen in line with US and EU sanctions against Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis while South Korea has displayed a large degree of maneuverability in comparison. South Korea is rapidly developing ties with Moscow while fostering an economic partnership with Beijing. Not participating in the sanctions against Russia increases the opportunities for South Korean businesses to invest and trade in Russia in the fields of high technology and resource supply, contributing to energy diversification in South Korea. The strengthened ties to China make South Korea's foreign policy more independent in regard to the US, despite South Korean security policy dependence on this strategic partnership.

In contrast, the Japanese efforts to improve its relations with Russia have been hampered by the Ukraine Crisis. The diplomatic isolation of Japan within East Asia makes it crucial for Japan to maintain the Japanese-American alliance. In times of strained relations with China and South Korea, Japan relies heavily on American support. The strong ties to the US and the Japanese integration within the Western hemisphere (participation in the G7) pressure Japan to comply with the EU-US sanction policy. However, it can be assumed that Japan belongs to the nations which are interested in lifting the sanctions. The Japanese businesses are interested in cooperation with Russia and the Abe government signals interest in cooperation with Russia as a regional partner.



In the last several years both Japan and South Korea sought to improve relations with Russia. The Abe administration in Japan attempted to restart the strained Russian-Japanese relations and to enhance economic and political partnership, going as far as seeking dialogue over the disputed Kuril Islands. In South Korea, President Park Geun-hye has initiated the Northeast Asia strategy to facilitate the economic and political integration of major East Asian states, including the Russian Federation, to establish a regional framework and facilitate the reunification of Korea. From Russia's point of view, good relations to both countries are a centerpiece of its Eurasia strategy and its strategic shift toward that region. However, the situation in Ukraine and a new Cold War threatens such efforts. South Korea and Japan, which are the United States’ traditional allies in the region, have to walk on a tightrope between rapprochement with Russia and endangering relations with Washington.

In this context, the South Korea and Japan’s reaction to events in Ukraine provide a non-Euro centric perspective on shifting borders and territorial sovereignty, given those states’ own claims. EU and US sanctions against Russia are directed at forcing a shift in Moscow policy toward Eastern Europe.  However, the effectiveness of those sanctions depends not only on Europe, but how other key global partners implement similar measures.

Major Rounds of Western Sanctions

  • Enacted by the US president’s Executive Order 13660, the first round of sanctions against Russia in March 2014 included visa restrictions for Russian officials who were responsible of the Crimea annexation. American sanctions were later joined by the European Union bans of similar scope.
  • The second round of sanctions was implemented in April 2014 and targets Kremlin affiliated companies related to Putin’s inner circle, such as the Volga Group and the InvestCapitalBank.
  • Military confrontation in the Donbass and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July precipitated the third round of sanctions. Washington and Brussels issued a transaction ban against the Rosneft and Novatek, as well as to the Gazprombank and the Vnesheconombank. All major banks with a government majority were barred from borrowing loans over 30 days.  This has resulted in increasing interest rates for credit and money supply. Additional sanctions are aimed against technology transfer for Russia’s oil and gas sector.


Pre-Ukraine Russia-Japan Relations

Since 2013, the Abe administration in Japan has fostered beneficial relations with Russia, which have led to a rise in mutual visits and negotiations on trade and visa arrangements.  In spite of a rocky diplomatic history, in which no peace treaty has formally concluded WWII due to territorial disputes, Abe has pursued positive relations with Moscow for two reasons.  Japanese confrontations with China over territorial disputes and Beijing’s détente with South Korea and Taiwan have isolated Japan from its neighbors. A diplomatic solution of the Kuril Islands dispute would be regarded as an important victory for the Abe administration and his conservative party. Moreover, Japan must diversify its energy sources in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Resource imports from Russia would present a comfortable and cheap solution to solve the short to medium term energy question.

Likewise, Russia is interested to diversify its energy exports markets, to revitalize the Russian Far East, including the naval ports in Vladivostok and Magadan. Thus, bolstering ties with Japan is generally in line with Putin’s plans of shifting Russia’s pivot to Asia.


Tokyo Reacts to Crimea

The first measures taken by the Japanese government after Russia’s annexation of Crimea included the halting of visa negotiations and space cooperation as well as the suspension of talks about economic and investment projects. The sanctions were accompanied by harsh criticism and disapproval of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. Although Japan generally followed the US-EU led sanctions, it refrained from participating in tougher measures such as imposing sanctions on Russian companies and individuals during the first round.

However, during the second round in April of 2014, Japan indexed 23 Russian officials on an unreleased sanction list. In the aftermath of the downing of MH17, Japan added more officials and also Crimea affiliated companies to the sanction list and also published their names.  On September the 24th, Japan widened the sanctions and banned the issuance of five major Russian banks (including Sberbank). Defense industry restrictions were also imposed.

As noted, the Japanese government pursued the goal to develop its relations with Russia. However, those efforts were undermined by the Ukraine Crisis, and Japan faced a balance act between maintaining friendly relations with Russia and paying heed to America’s interests. Due to the conflicts with South Korea and China, Japan relies more than ever on American support. In the first rounds of the sanctions, the Japanese measures were harmless and were meant not to strain the relations to Russia too much.  Additionally, there is a considerable time lag between the EU-US sanctions and the Japanese sanctions. The Japanese administration might have expected that the situation soon calms down soon after the annexation of Crimea and that the relations between the West and Russia normalize. However, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine between the central government and Russia-backed separatists has forced Japan to implement sanctions similar in scale to US-EU sanctions in a show of diplomatic solidarity with other Western partners. However, Japanese official look to lift the sanctions but are likely to follow their allies’ example should the situation arise.


Pre-Ukraine Russia-ROK Relations

Relations between the Republic of Korea and Russia have strengthened more so than those with Tokyo. Although another major American ally in the region - often ranking above Japan because of issues related to North Korea – Russia and South Korea developed trade relations immediately following the dissolution of the USSR.  Through 2013 a visa agreement was ratified by South Korea and Russia, trade projects were expanded and political dialogue was promoted. Unlike Japan or China, South Korea has never formally participating in conflict against the Russia, having only informally against one another in the Korean War.

Economic and political issues drive the rapprochement between Russia and South Korea. South Korea’s interest as an export oriented economy lie in gaining access to new markets, particularly since the global financial crisis. Economically, South Korea is also dependent on resources and heavily relies on crude material imports. Due to the tensions in the South China and East China Sea, the turmoil in the Middle East and growing domestic demand, South Korea has sought to diversify its energy sources. In that vein, Seoul has supported Russian plans to construct a pipeline supplying South Korea with Siberian gas. The cooperation with Russia in the fields of economy is also in line with South Korea’s political goals: at least the denuclearization of the DPRK and ultimately the unification of the Korean Peninsula. President Park’s Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative aims to strengthen the framework between the North East Asian states and under the presidency of Park Geun-hye the relations between China and ROK as well as Russia and ROK have gradually improved. However, South Korea is bound by the KORUS alliance, which restrains its capabilities to move to close to Russia.

Russia similarly has an interest in developing relations with Seoul, largely for economic reasons. South Korea is a world leader in the productions of various electronic items and can offer high tech products to Russia. Cooperation can be achieved in the defense industry sector and nuclear energy.


Seoul Evades Participation

In the wake of the Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Seoul joined the cadre of states denouncing the actions, but refused to provide specific condemnation. In the UN general assembly vote South Korea reaffirmed the territorial integrity of the Ukraine and sided with US and EU.  However, when asked about South Korea´s standpoint to the Crimea referendum, officials avoided clear statements and hided in ambiguous replies such as: "The government may not release its position on the results of the Crimea referendum. We only hope that the U.S. and Russia will be able to resolve this issue peacefully" or "We are reviewing the situation.” Unlike Japan, Seoul did not join the sanctions on Russia and instead discussed a further expansion of their trade relations with Russia.  

South Korea is generally trapped in a similar dilemma such as Japan. On the one hand South Korea is interested in developing trade relations and political ties to Russia; on the other hand South Korea relies on American support facing the North Korean threat. However, the Northeast Asia strategy of President Park successfully facilitated the rapprochement of China and South Korea.  The personal relations between Park Geun-hye and Xi Jinping are described to be good mirrored in fast developing economic ties between China and South Korea. In the same time the DPRK-China relations are strained due to the nuclear build-up of North Korea. The bad state of the Chinese-North Korean alliance weakens isolates North Korea and makes it less dangerous. In such a case, the KORUS alliance is still important, but not without alternatives. In this regard of Russia, South Korea can act more independently in its foreign policy then Japan for instance.  For these reasons, Seoul refused the sanction Russia after Crimea and did not follow the US or EU in imposing strict sanctions following the Malaysia Airlines incident.