Sustaining an International Coalition of the Willing: Lessons from Japan’s and South Korea’s Response to Putin’s War in Ukraine

The international coalition that banded together in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine demonstrates democracies’ ability to endure national discomfort to confront authoritarian challenges to territorial integrity, sovereignty, and self-determination. Six months into the invasion, support for sanction packages on Russia remains high across the U.S. (80 percent) and allies in Europe (78 percent in the EU), even while inflationary pressures and supply chain disruptions continue to cause economic damage. Beyond the Trans-Atlantic relationship, the support of U.S. allies in Asia has been critical to sustaining a global coalition that opposes Putin’s war and imposes costs on his regime. The two most important U.S. allies in Asia, Japan’s and South Korea’s resolute support for Ukraine are leaps and bounds ahead of both countries’ lackluster responses to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Yet, misalignments in Seoul’s and Tokyo’s policy responses both with each other and with the United States and other European allies risk undermining the effectiveness of this global coalition and could similarly weaken an international response to future crises.

The Misalignments

Japan and South Korea have been willing partners in the U.S.-led coalition to condemn and sanction Russia for its illegal invasion of Ukraine and the war crimes it has committed since the beginning of the war. Both countries joined international sanctions packages, released statements condemning Putin’s invasion, voted against Russia in the UN, and participated as invitees to NATO summits for the first time. These actions are commensurate with both governments’ emphasis on support for democracy, human rights, and the rules-based international order as well as concerns regarding the invasion of a country by a neighboring nuclear-armed great power.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s re-invented “Global Korea” concept reorients Seoul’s strategic direction to align more closely with the U.S.-ROK Alliance and emphasizes a foreign policy based on support for liberal norms underpinning the U.S.-led international order. Yoon describes this strategic shift as a correction to his view of Seoul’s past tendency of remaining “silent in the face of violations of liberal democratic norms and human rights.” Moreover, given its own geography, South Korea is paying close attention to how the United States and others respond to the invasion of a non-nuclear country by a nuclear-armed neighbor, as well as how Russia employs nuclear posturing to threaten against intervention by third parties.

From a strategic standpoint, Seoul understands that support for Ukraine and solidarity with the U.S. and its allies in Europe today could pay dividends in the future regarding ongoing issues in inter-Korean relations and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. At the same time, an appreciation of Russia’s role in denuclearization talks and inter-Korean relations played an out-sized role in Seoul’s previous engagement with Moscow. As observers anticipate the Yoon administration’s launch of South Korea’s own Indo-Pacific Strategy, it will be important to pay attention to how Seoul’s role vis-a-vis the Russian war in Ukraine is framed given the complex strategic interplay of Peninsular issues.

Following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio dissolved what had been years of a relatively warmer Japanese policy toward Russia, ending the diplomatic campaign of late former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo to resolve the Northern Territories issue. Tokyo’s tougher stance on Moscow comes as no surprise when placed in the context of Japanese foreign policy’s increasing emphasis on democracy, human rights, and rule-of-law. From a security standpoint, Japan must contend with a closer Sino-Russian military relationship and the recent heightened Russian militarization of the disputed Northern Territories.

Taking Note of the Discrepancies

As recently as early September, China and Russia held joint live-fire military exercises in the Sea of Japan. In October, the PRC and Russian ships circumnavigated the entirety of the Japanese archipelago in what Ryan Ashley, PhD student at UT Austin and U.S. Air Force officer, describes as a “clear military warning to the U.S.-Japan Alliance.” In 2010, force planners in Japan redistributed Japanese Special Defense Forces (JSDF) along the southwestern areas of Japan as they became more attuned to potential hostilities emanating from China. Yet, current PRC and Russian military activities along Japan’s northern coast may give Japan’s Ministry of Defense pause as the government works on crafting its new National Security Strategy. Tokyo, too, is especially sensitive to what the invasion of Ukraine might mean for the future of Taiwan’s security. While observers are correct to call out important differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, Prime Minister Kishida’s proclamation that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” certainly did not fall on deaf ears in the region. 

While both South Korea and Japan have ample reason to support a decisive response to Putin’s war in Ukraine, there are discrepancies between Seoul’s and Tokyo’s policies that weaken the coalition’s response to Russian aggression. Although Seoul joined the international sanctions regime, the government chose not to impose any sanctions of its own. A picture is worth a thousand words and the image of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing the South Korean National Assembly in a near-empty auditorium spoke volumes. And while neither country is known positively for its refugee policies, Japan has welcomed 1,862 Ukrainians displaced from the war, giving them renewable one-year residency status and worker’s permits. While conferring a different legal status than “refugee,” Japan’s acceptance of “evacuees” from Ukraine in these numbers stands in stark contrast to last year’s record-setting number of 74 accepted refugees. Comparatively, South Korea thus far seems to only be allowing ethnic Koreans from Ukraine into its borders.

Factoring Energy Security and Market Access

But perhaps the most significant obstacles to implementing and sustaining a more comprehensive response to the war in Ukraine are ones that affect both Japan and South Korea equally–energy security and market access. As resource-poor countries, Japan and South Korea both rely on Russian liquified natural gas (LNG)–accounting for 9 percent and 6 percent of total imports, respectively. According to the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, between February 24 (the date Putin invaded Ukraine) and July 31, Japan purchased $2.6 billion of Russian oil, gas, and coal while South Korea purchased $1.7 billion. While energy vulnerabilities can complicate the situation for Seoul and Tokyo, European countries that are much more dependent on Russian energy are taking tougher measures to reduce this reliance.

By comparison, South Korea and Japan are not only failing to diversify but are actively signing new energy deals with Russia. As recently as late August, Seoul signed a $2.25 billion deal with a subsidiary of the Russian state-owned nuclear energy conglomerate, Rosatom, to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. Even after Putin signed a decree in June taking charge of the project, Japan’s biggest power generator JERA signed a deal with the new Sakhalin-2 operator to maintain long-term deliveries of LNG. While Seoul and Tokyo maintain that they have remained in close communication with Washington regarding these developments, it doesn’t change the poor optics of these deals.

The ability of national strategic interests to undermine international solidarity cannot be underestimated when it comes to sustaining a united front and countering challenges to the rules-based international order. It bears consideration by governments in all three countries how energy security can be elevated as a focus of both alliances and the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral. Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington would do well to prioritize two things as it relates to this crisis and future ones. First, the three governments should shore up any gaps in understanding of each other’s scenario-specific redlines in how far each country is willing to go to impose costs on authoritarian challengers to the rules-based order. Then, and most importantly, Japan, South Korea, and the United States need to consider realistic ways to overcome these obstacles to a more unified international coalition.

For the current crisis, this could have taken the form of generating greater buy-in from Seoul to enact its own sanctions package. And while no easy and or short-term solution was likely possible, diversifying energy reliance away from Russia required more serious attention, and hard choices would have needed to be made. For instance, ending long-term LNG contracts with Russia is undesirable to the Japanese government as these locked-in rates are roughly one-third less expensive than what Japan would have to pay on the spot-market. Yet a potential solution could see similar arrangements made with the United States, a net exporter of LNG.

All three countries understand the importance of partners and allies when meeting today’s challenges, as evident in their strategic documents. But operationalizing these relationships during crises can come with growing pains, as we have seen through the misalignments in the U.S., Japanese, and South Korean responses to the war in Ukraine. Learning from these mistakes can play a role in deterring future crises and enable a more successful response should they arise.