March 23, 2023
TOKYO – Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s trip to Kyiv on Tuesday for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was unprecedented. No other Japanese prime minister in the postwar era has visited a country in the throes of war.
After talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Monday, Kishida secretly flew to Poland, before traveling by train to Kyiv.
According to government sources, several attempts have been made to organize a visit by Kishida to the wartorn country.
The prime minister, who was eyeing a major diplomatic achievement ahead of the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima in May, has finally made it.
Kishida told Natsuo Yamaguchi, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party’s coalition partner Komeito, about the trip in a phone call on Tuesday shortly after 10:00 a.m., Japan time.
“I’m on my way to Ukraine for talks with President Zelenskyy,” Kishida said to Yamaguchi. The call was brief as the telephone signal was weak.
Kishida had similar phone calls with senior LDP officials, none of whom had been informed of the trip beforehand, for security reasons.
The prime minister’s overseas trips usually involve large delegations, including officials from the Prime Minister’s Office who manage the schedule, Foreign Ministry bureaucrats who correspond with the host country, and personnel from the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces who are in charge of the government plane.
It is also customary to inform the Diet and senior officials of the ruling parties before departure. On this occasion, however, a very small number of officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry were involved in the preparation, to prevent information leaks.
The prime minister secretly flew to Poland on a chartered plane, instead of using the government jet, amid concern the press corps would catch wind of the plan.
“It won’t be possible to go [to Kyiv] unless the trip happens while I’m away for a visit to another country,” Kishida reportedly said to people in his circle.
The prime minister’s trip to India was being finalized in early March. Behind the scenes, the government was planning a visit to India and Ukraine.
Although speculation emerged about an imminent trip to Kyiv, people close to Kishida batted away inquiries from journalists, saying, “It would be difficult.”
4th time lucky
Planning for the visit was kept secret because of fears that either Kishida or Zelenskyy would be targeted if the news got out.
Three other plans for Kishida to visit Kyiv have been abandoned since the outbreak of the invasion in February 2022.
A plan was mooted for Kishida to visit the Ukrainian capital during a trip to Europe for the G7 summit in Elmau, Germany, in June, but the idea was shelved due to a lack of time.
The two other plans progressed to the point of working out the details of the itinerary. At the end of last year, a plan was postponed following an information leak, which prompted an angry response from Kishida. “It will be impossible [to achieve] if information gets out,” Kishida said.
When Zelenskyy asked Kishida to visit Ukraine during phone talks on Jan. 6, coordination kicked off for a February visit, but the government was urged to reconsider the plan by the United States, which Japan relies on for information about the conflict.
U.S. President Joe Biden subsequently visited Ukraine on Feb. 20. A Japanese government official said, “The United States may have wanted to avoid complicating the security arrangements due to an overlap in the timing of the visits.” The Japanese government subsequently abandoned plans for a visit in February.
Kishida’s trip to Kyiv was finally realized on the fourth attempt, with the G7 summit approaching.
Government officials managed to keep the journey to Ukraine a secret partly because senior leaders of the ruling and opposition parties have stated since February that prior approval by the Diet for an overseas prime ministerial trip would be “unnecessary.”
All of the G7 leaders who are scheduled to attend the Group of Seven summit in Hiroshima in May have now visited Kyiv.
Coincidentally, Kishida’s visit to Ukraine coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Russia.
“We have shown the world that the G7 is taking firm action,” said a ruling party official, echoing opinions that Kishida’s visit was well received by the Ukrainian side.
“The prime minister’s calls for unity will be more persuasive,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. “It is diplomatically significant that he was able to spell out Japan’s resolve to support Ukraine.”