The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia

Moscow Now Has a Ukrainian Problem in the Russian Far East, Former Japanese Defense Minister Says

Staunton, April 2 – Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea is echoing through the non-Russian nations within the Russian Federation, but it is also creating a new Ukrainian problem for the Kremlin leader in the Russian Far East where a former Japanese defense minister has noted that 60 percent of the inhabitants on the disputed Etorofu Island are Ukrainian.

In a commentary over the weekend, Yuriko Koike, who currently chairs Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party General Council and serves in the Diet, says that “given the Crimean annexation,” Tokyo’s position in talks with Moscow about the disputed Northern Territories changed.

Moreover, she wonders whether, given the share of ethnic Ukrainians on these islands, “ Putin would accept” an independence referendum there “as readily as he did the ballot in Crimea, undertaken at the barrel of a gun.”

The former defense minister’s comments are important both for what they say about how Tokyo views the impact of Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and because they call attention to something many people either do not know or have forgotten: there is a significant Ukrainian population in the Russian Far East and the US once directed Ukrainian language broadcasts to it.

“For Japanese leaders and citizens,” Koike writes, “President Vladimir Putin’s brutal annexation of Crimea was an unsurprising return to the normal paradigm of Russian history. Indeed, most Japanese regard the move as having been determined by some expansionist gene in Russia’s political DNA, rather than by Putin himself or the specifics of the Ukraine crisis.”

“Japan,” she continues, “is particularly concerned with Russian expansionism, because it is the only G-7 country that currently has a territorial dispute with Russia, which has occupied its Northern Territories since the waning days of World War II … Since then, these islands have been controlled by either the Soviet Union or its successor state, Russia.”

Moreover, Koike points out, “as elsewhere in Russia, their residents have been impoverished by consistently incompetent and corrupt government, whether run by Communists or today’s crony capitalists.”

“After coming to power at the end of 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had sought to improve relations with Putin in the hope of beginning serious talks on the Northern Territories. But now that Putin has made his project of imperial restoration crystal clear, those hopes are stillborn.” Tokyo supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

The former defense minister continues by saying that “in the immediate future, Japan will work with the G-7 to ensure that Putin’s reckless ambitions do not endanger other parts of Ukraine. Already, Japan has decided to provide ¥150 billion ($1.5 billion) in economic aid for Ukraine, the largest pledge by any individual country, including the US, thus far.”

“Before the Crimea invasion, territorial negotiations between Japan and Russia showed signs of progress,” she observes. “But it is now clear not only that Putin is returning Russia to the stagnation of the late-Soviet era, but also that he subscribes to former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s dictum that “what we have, we hold.”

And she adds that “more important, Japan understands that business as usual with an aggressive Russia that undermines the international order could embolden others closer to home to embrace Putin’s lawless tactics. The days of an inward looking Japan are over. Japan now sees threats elsewhere in the world in the context of its own security, and will react appropriately.”

Koike’s comments represent a major geopolitical shift and her remark about the ethnic Ukrainians in the disputed territories should lead others to focus on what Ukrainians call the “Zeleny Klyn” or “green wedge,” the portion of the Russian Far East to which St. Petersburg send Ukrainians in the last three decades of the tsarist period.

During the Russian Civil War, these ethnic Ukrainians alternately pushed for their own independent government and opposed White Russian groups who supported the idea of Russia “one and indivisible” and refused to recognize the rights of ethnic Ukrainians or other non-Russian groups.

That failure of most anti-Bolshevik leaders contributed to the victory of Lenin, but after 1917, the Soviet authorities behaved in an even more repressive fashion, refusing to allow Ukrainian language schools and other institutions to continue to function and forcibly re-identifying Ukrainians in the Far East.

Exactly how many ethnic Ukrainians there are in the region between the Amur River and the Pacific Coast is thus unknown, but some have estimated that has many as half have Ukrainian roots. Those roots may become more important as Putin’s Russian nationalist impulses continue to manifest themselves.

Japan and to a lesser extent China have paid attention to the Zeleny Klyn, and the United States has as well. In the mid-1980s, the US even broadcast in Ukrainian to the region from Japan for a brief period, a remarkable step because it was the only time during the Soviet period that US broadcasts ignored Moscow-imposed divisions on the peoples of the USSR.

The most comprehensive source on the Zeleny Klyn is Ivan Svit’s “Ukrains’ko-iapons’ki vzaiemyny” [Ukrainian-Japanese Relations] (in Ukrainian, New York, 1972, 371 pp.) For a valuable English language discussion and notes to other sources, see John J. Stephan, “The Russian Far East,” Stanford, 1994.)