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Japan's Ukraine aid creates new rift with Russia

Roman Goncharenko
April 15, 2024

Japan has become one of Ukraine's most important allies, providing billions in aid marking a radical shift in its relationship with Russia.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, second left, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, second right, with officials attend a cooperation exchange ceremony
Japan and Ukraine recently reaffirmed their commitment to strengthen their cooperationImage: Kazuhiro Nogi/Pool Photo/AP/picture alliance

When Europe talks about aid for Ukraine, it looks to itself and the United States. But for months, politicians in Washington have been unable to agree on a new multibillion aid package for Ukraine.

As a result, other countries have increased their share of support. Among them is Japan, which, according to Ukraine's Finance Ministry, has quietly become one of Kyiv's most important financial backers, leading the way in the first months of 2024.

Aid, not weapons

At a conference in Japan in February, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said the aid provided and pledged would total $12 billion (€11.2 billion). According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Japan was in sixth place for international aid to Ukraine in January, providing more than €7 billion.

This aid from Japan is helping to keep the Ukrainian economy afloat. The National Bank estimates the country's gross domestic product has shrunk by a third since the Russian invasion began in February 2022. While Japan cannot supply Ukraine with lethal weapons for historical reasons and national legal restrictions, it can send food, medicine, generators, cars, bulletproof vests and demining equipment.

Missile workaround?

But Ukraine needs weapons, and Japan might be able to help despite its constitutionally enshrined pacifism. The Japanese press has reported there could be a delivery to the US of missiles manufactured in Japan for American Patriot anti-aircraft systems so that Washington could pass its missiles on to Ukraine.

In response, Russian Foreign Ministry representatives said the appearance of Japanese missiles in Ukraine would have "consequences" for Moscow's relations with Tokyo.

A Patriot air defense system in Japan.
Japan may find roundabout ways to supply Ukraine with weaponsImage: Kyodo/IMAGO

Atsuko Higashino, a professor studying the conflict in Ukraine at the University of Tsukuba, is in favor of such a delivery, as the missiles are "not a weapon to kill, but to protect the Ukrainian people." She does not believe that such a delivery can be expected "in the near future," however, because Japan has a "serious deficit" when it comes to defense systems.

James Brown, a professor and expert in Russia-Japan relations at Temple University in Tokyo, believes the deliveries of Patriot missiles to the US are already "largely agreed." He added that the delays are due to regulations, explaining that it's very important to Japan that its missiles aren't delivered directly to Ukraine.

'Radical change' in relations with Russia

But how has Japan become one of Ukraine's most important partners? "When Japan assists Ukraine, when it pushes back against Russian aggression, it’s really thinking about trying to uphold an international system that prevents changes of the status quo by force," said Brown.

He added that Japan aims to "deter China from attempting something similar with respect to Taiwan." Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida discussed this with US President Joe Biden at last week's tripartite summit on the Indo-Pacific in Washington.

Japan's attitude toward Ukraine and Russia has "radically changed," said political analyst Higashino. While Japan "accepted the illegal annexation of Crimea" and "Russian propaganda" in 2014, she said everything was different after the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This is due, among other things, to "the clear violation of the UN Charter" and the Russian army's "brutality" in Bucha near Kyiv.

Bucha: 'There was a feeling something horrible would happen'

Exceptions for fossil fuels

A change at the top of the government played a role in this shift. "Under previous leadership, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan pursued very much a rapprochement with Russia. With a real aim to try and develop relations of partnership to resolve the country’s territorial dispute, to sign a peace treaty," said Brown.

"But after 2022, the Japanese government recognized that those efforts are not really going to work, and instead, their priority has become not to create a partnership with Russia but rather to try and ensure that Russian aggression against Ukraine fails."

In contrast to Abe, Prime Minister Kishida has undertaken "very far-reaching sanctions against Russia," said Higashino. "That was simply unthinkable before."

Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019
In 2019, Japan's former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aimed to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir PutinImage: Reuters/Sputnik/Kremlin/M. Klimentyev

Still, Japan has not completely cut off relations with Russia. There are exceptions for some areas of the economy, particularly in the energy sector. Japanese car companies have withdrawn from the lucrative Russian market, but Japan is still involved in the Gazprom-led Sakhalin 2 oil and gas project, although other Western companies are no longer participating. The project supplies Japan with liquefied natural gas (LNG). With virtually no fossil fuels of its own, Japan sources around 9% of its gas from Russia.

Kyiv returns the favor

As a gesture of support for Japan, the Ukrainian parliament passed a decree in October 2022 that sided with Tokyo in the Russian-Japanese dispute over the Kuril Islands. It recognizes that the "Northern Territories," as the islands are called in Japan, "continue to be occupied by the Russian Federation. 

A similar decree was also signed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

This article was originally written in Russian.