An artist's rendering of the X-37 spacecraft. Image: NASA / Marshall Space Flight Center via Wikipedia

Russia and its adversaries are equally obsessed with a full spectrum of “gray zone” activities, including high-tech military, industrial and corporate espionage. While Russia does not see Japan as an adversary, it feels uncomfortable with Japan’s close ties to the US.

The contemporary Russia-Japan relationship is complicated, with worrying trends signaling possible derailment of their bilateral ties in some fields.

While the direction of great-power relations is rightly gauged from policy moves and summits, the shadowy world of espionage and spies, while overtly aligned with policy and polity, covertly operates to secure national interests, making no concessions, even to allies

Over the past few weeks, a curious case of alleged espionage has been grabbing headlines in Japan. Kazuo Miyasaka, the 70-year-old former owner of a technical research firm, was reportedly apprehended by the police for allegedly passing on high-tech military secrets to a member of the Russian trade representative mission in Japan.

Miyasaka is believed to have betrayed secrets related to the US Space Force’s unmanned X-37B spacecraft, among other advanced systems.

Japanese media reports indicate Miyasaka has confessed to betraying similar secrets to alleged Russian agents for almost 30 years in exchange for 10 million yen (US90,535). While it is not clear how Miyasaka had access to the presumably classified information, it is a worrying sign for operational security of shared Japanese and US secrets. 

According to Russian media, the trade representative who allegedly received the secret information has left Japan because of the psychological toll of the now widely reported story.

The Russian Embassy in Japan has said it was observing the situation and would respond based on the developments as the police investigation proceeds.

However, this is not the first time a similar espionage case has been uncovered. Another Russian trade representative, Anton Kalinin, left Japan in January 2020 after a case of alleged corporate espionage involving SoftBank came to light. 

X-37B

Emerging dual-use technologies like reusable spacecraft capable of carrying massive payloads into orbit and beyond could bolster the overall capability of a nation in space, which in turn could prove decisive during hostilities. Modern long-range precision-strike weaponry and most navigation systems would be useless without seamless data streams from space-based assets.

The US military calls its X-37B an “orbital test vehicle” with a mandate to test and demonstrate reusable space technologies, but doesn’t make any mention of its offensive capabilities. 

One thing to note is that the US Space Force’s Space Delta 9, which has the mandate to secure the United States against orbital threats and conduct orbital warfare operations, both defensive and offensive, is in charge of operating the X-37B. 

Space Delta 9’s involvement gives some credence to the possibility that apart from testing core spacefaring technologies, the X-37B is also likely engaged in testing the latest sensors for future US spy satellites, directed-energy weapons and other potentially offensive systems.

Russian weapons-industry functionaries have also spoken about the potential for the X-37B to be a nuclear-weapons platform in orbit.

The X-37B sports a payload bay and has previously been used as a “ride for smaller satellites,” thus it could technically be adapted to carry nuclear weapons too. 

However, the relatively small size of the payload bay may not give it much capability considering the additional guidance and propulsion requirements that ordnance deployed from orbit would need. 

Some experts believe the X-37B likely also serves as a covert means to deploy uncatalogued military satellites, which according to Russia includes maneuverable “inspector” satellites like its own Kosmos 2543. It is no surprise that Russia is developing a similar platform for its own space activities and would benefit from any design information on the X-37B, acquired by whatever means.

Sojitz derails MegaFon’s Arctic Connect participation 

The actions of major private enterprises identified with a country’s national interests are also extrapolated to its geopolitical legacy. For example, the case of Nippon Steel and its use of forced labor during World War II is grounds for litigation and possible seizure of assets to this day in South Korea.

In the modern age, high-speed Internet connectivity is crucial infrastructure, deprived of which no region of the globe can prosper, including the Russian Far East. The Kremlin’s push for the modernization and development of the Northern Sea Route and its Far East region is well known. 

However, the Kremlin’s apparent frustration at the lack of Japanese private enterprise’s willingness to follow through with promised investment and joint ventures is a roadblock in contemporary Russia-Japan relations.

The latest in this saga of derailing tech and economic cooperation is Russia’s second-largest cellphone and Internet service provider MegaFon’s force majeure decision to suspend its participation in the Arctic Connect submarine-cable consortium project. 

MegaFon was hedging its bets on co-financing by Japanese company Sojitz as per the terms of the 2020 agreement that was signed after the project’s feasibility studies. 

However, Sojitz seems apprehensive and according to some Russian media reports willing to make far-fetched excuses for delaying the supply of promised funding, thus leaving MegaFon with no choice but to freeze its participation until funding can be acquired.  

It would be no surprise if the Kremlin interpreted this delay as a deliberate, hostile move meant to obstruct the envisioned prosperity and development of its Far East. That is to say, a move somewhere in the “gray zone” of perpetual “war by other means” aimed at Russia.

It may also be possible that Russia and its judiciary will inflict a cost on Sojitz Corp and Japan as a response to what may amount to the Russian Far East being deprived of badly needed diverse digital connectivity, not unlike how South Korea and its judiciary deals with Nippon Steel and other Japanese companies.

In conclusion, although the Miyasaka X-37B spy scandal and the Sojitz-MegaFon Arctic Connect sagas are only two anecdotal pieces of evidence, they signal a worsening trend of increased rifts and shrinking avenues of cooperation between Russia and Japan.

Aditya Pareek

Aditya Pareek is a junior research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, an independent, networked think-tank and public-policy school based in Bangalore.