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Russia’s New Ploy in Territorial Grab is to Play Up Japan’s ‘War Crimes’ in Battle over History

The Putin administration is aiming to downplay the Soviet Union’s illegal actions during the war by advocating a historical view in which the Soviet Union is the good guy so it’s okay to grab Japanese – and European – territory.

Yuichi Onoda

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Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures while speaking during a meeting with employees of the nuclear industry on their professional holiday, Nuclear Industry Worker's Day, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. (Mikhail Metzel, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

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Russia’s Putin administration has recently stepped up efforts to propagandize Japan’s alleged war crimes during World War II. An academic conference held on September 6-7, in Khabarovsk in Russia’s Far East on the topic of the Khabarovsk Trials of December 1949, a one-sided prosecution by the former Soviet Union of detained Japanese soldiers, made the claim that “the Soviet Union saved the world from Japan’s germ warfare”. 

Russia’s aim is to spread the historical view of Japan as the bad guy, thereby justifying the actions of the Soviet Union, which violated the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact and entered the war against Japan.

In the Khabarovsk Trials, twelve soldiers of Unit 731 (the Kwantung Army’s Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department), having allegedly conducted research on bacteriological weapons, were sentenced to imprisonment in labor camps as “war criminals”. 

World War II Japanese soldiers interned by Soviet Union in Siberia

Not only was the long-term internment of Japanese soldiers itself a violation of international law under the Geneva Conventions and the Potsdam Declaration, but the facts surrounding the investigations and hearings were far removed from those in the West.

This recent conference on the topic of the trials was co-sponsored by the Russian Historical Society, the Federal Security Service (FSB), and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a message sent to conference attendees and read at the opening, President Vladimir Putin noted the conference’s significance “for the preservation of historical memory, so as to effectively counter any attempts to distort the WWII events and to prevent their recurrence.” 

In a video address, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated, “the generally recognized World War II results enshrined in the UN Charter are unshakable. Russian diplomacy will continue to thwart any attempts to revise them no matter who makes them.”

Deputy Chairman of the Russian Investigative Committee, Alexander Fedorov, claimed at the meeting that “Japanese research became the basis for the development of biological weapons by the United States.” Fedorov also announced a new investigation into “murders of prisoners of war by Japan,” and a plan to publicly announce the perpetrators.

Prior to the conference, in August the FSB declassified a series of documents that it claimed were the “testimonies” of Kwantung Army officers, which were then widely reported by the state-run news agency. Headlines ranged from “Japan Prepared for War with the Soviet Union from 1938” to “Japan’s Biological Experiments on Soviet Citizens”.

The Soviet Union violated the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact of 1941 when it entered the war against Japan in August 1945 and illegally occupied the Northern Territories. 

The Putin administration is aiming to downplay the Soviet Union’s illegal actions during the war by advocating a historical view in which the Soviet Union is the good guy and Japan the bad guy. This type of information warfare is inextricably linked to the Putin administration’s claim that the Northern Territories became Russian territory as a result of World War II.

List of Japanese soldiers interned by the Soviet Union after World War II and held in violation of international agreements

Information Warfare on Russia’s European Flank

Russia is also eagerly targeting European countries with its historical propaganda. 

In September 2019, on the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, the European Parliament passed a resolution criticizing Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which Putin vehemently opposed. In a rebuttal, Putin contributed an article to a Western magazine, arguing that the Soviet Union had liberated Europe from the Nazis.

Last year, Russia’s constitution was amended to include a provision on “protection of historical truth.” Likewise, in July of this year, a law was enacted that prohibits equating the Nazis with the Soviet Union in publications and Internet postings. 

(Read the original Sankei Shimbun report in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Yuichi Onoda, Moscow