Controversial: Shinzo Abe meets Vladimir Putin in May
Controversial: Shinzo Abe meets Vladimir Putin in May © Reuters

For 17 years, until 2014, the G7 was the G8. In a goodwill gesture to post-communist Russia, the Group of Seven industrialised democracies invited Russian president Boris Yeltsin to attend their summit for the first time in 1997. But Russia’s membership was suspended after its annexation of Crimea following the pro-western revolution in Ukraine.

Now the G7 is grappling over whether to ease sanctions on Moscow and, as some of the alliance’s most prominent figures have proposed, to resume dialogue with Russia. Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe, who will host the G7 summit, told the FT and Nikkei earlier this year: “We need the constructive engagement of Russia.” Mr Abe visited Russian president Vladimir Putin earlier this month.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, seen as more of a dove than his chancellor, Angela Merkel, also told Handelsblatt newspaper last month it was “time to talk” to Russia and stop playing the “isolationist card”.

Yet the question of whether and how to talk to Moscow presents several difficulties. It exposes differences of opinion, too, between the G7’s Euro-Atlantic members and Tokyo.

Continuing to isolate Moscow could lead to a further descent into what Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, has said is already a “new Cold War”. Yet the US and most of the EU are reluctant to return to anything resembling business as usual after Russia was seen as breaking a postwar taboo in Europe by annexing territory.

A further problem arises over the potential content of any Euro-Atlantic dialogue with Russia. Moscow is widely seen as wanting to re-establish a Russian sphere of influence comprising the former Soviet republics. For western capitals, that runs against postwar principles of sovereignty and freedom.

Tokyo sees things differently. While it does not want the Crimea annexation to go unpunished, Japan views Russia as less of a strategic threat than North Korea or China. Its main fear is that isolating Russia could push Moscow into a strategic alliance with Beijing.

Before the Ukraine crisis, Mr Abe had also made more progress than any previous Japanese premier towards resolving the dispute with Moscow over the Kurile Islands. Known in Japan as the Northern Territories, the islands, which extend northwards from the Japanese archipelago, were occupied by the Soviet Union after the second world war.

“Normalising relations with Russia has been and remains a personal foreign policy priority of Mr Abe,” says Samuel Charap, senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Washington office. “He thinks this is important not only for the Kurile dispute but also because of regional geopolitics.”

He adds that Japan has had “differences with the US over this issue because the US tends not to view Russia in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical context”.

One person close to Mr Abe agrees that the Japanese leader gives weight to relations with Russia primarily “because he’s thinking about long-term strategy vis-à-vis China”.

If Russia and China were to find common cause on territorial disputes such as the Kuriles and the Senkaku Islands — controlled by Japan but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu — then pressure on Japan would increase, this person adds. China’s actions in the East and South China Seas could become still more assertive, further destabilising Asia. That in turn would hurt not just Japan, but the US and Europe too.

Notwithstanding such considerations, the Obama administration has put pressure on Tokyo not to send the wrong signals to Russia.

Analysts suggest Mr Abe is unlikely to defy Washington and drop sanctions against Russia in the absence of an agreement over the Kurile Islands. Whatever the progress to date, such a deal is seen as almost inconceivable as Japan will not settle for anything less than the return of territory.

The EU for its part is set to vote to continue sanctions against Moscow when they come up for renewal next month. One European official warns however that with Kiev struggling to deliver its own commitments under the Minsk ceasefire and peace deal, maintaining European unity over sanctions may become more difficult.

Mr Charap argues the current “middle way” strategy of isolating Russia over Ukraine, while trying to maintain co-operation with Moscow on big global issues, is not sustainable. While agreeing on the need to maintain sanctions over Crimea, he too suggests it is time to talk with Russia about the underlying issues that provoked the Ukraine crisis.

“The first step, which could be taken by this US administration, is just beginning a conversation. I think that would be stabilising in itself,” he says.

Ultimately, however, officials in both western capitals and Moscow agree little change is likely in the overall stance towards Russia until after the US presidential election in November.

So the G7 summit is expected to bring no change in sanctions and maintain pressure on Moscow to fulfil its obligations under the Minsk agreement.

Neil Buckley is FT Eastern Europe editor and Hiroyuki Akita is Nikkei senior and editorial staff writer

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