Japan ends Russian coal and vodka imports, expels envoys over 'war crimes' in Ukraine

The Japanese ban on imports of Russian coal followed a similar step taken by the United States and the European Union. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Labelling Russia's actions in Ukraine as "intolerable war crimes", Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday (April 8) announced further measures against Moscow including new asset freezes and ending imports of Russian coal, machinery as well as vodka.

Eight Russian diplomats and trade officials will also be expelled, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

"Russian troops have indiscriminately killed civilians and attacked nuclear facilities, committing intolerable war crimes in Ukraine," Mr Kishida told a news conference. "People responsible for such inhumane acts need to be held accountable."

He said that Japan was fully backing a probe by the International Criminal Court into Russian "atrocities". Russia, which has described its actions in Ukraine as a "special military operation to de-Nazify" the country, has denied that civilians had been targeted, let alone killed.

Moscow has ramped up military activity around Japanese waters and threatened to retaliate against Tokyo's moves.

Mr Kishida said this was "concerning", but added that the current situation was "solely due to Russia's aggression in Ukraine".

"To try to pin the blame on Japan is unjust, and we will not tolerate that," he said. "We will cooperate with the global community and impose strong sanctions to halt further escalations, achieve a ceasefire, and stop the invasion."

The Japanese ban on imports of Russian coal followed a similar step taken by the United States and the European Union.

Tokyo's decision is significant as it signals a shift in Japan's energy procurement strategy. Citing its own vulnerabilities, the world's third-largest coal importer had previously declined to wean itself off from Russian energy sources.

Russia accounted for 11 per cent of Japan's coal imports last year, and was also its fifth-largest supplier of crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Mr Kishida, who did not provide a timeline for when Japan would phase out Russian coal imports, declined to comment when asked if a similar ban on crude and LNG was on the cards. He said Japan would act in line with other Group of Seven (G-7) nations.

Last week, the Prime Minister said that Japan would not withdraw from Russia's Sakhalin-1 offshore oil joint venture nor the Sakhalin-2 LNG project.

Still, Mr Kishida said on Friday that Japan would urgently seek new alternative sources of energy to cut its reliance on Russian imports. He said: "We will make full use of power sources that are highly effective for decarbonisation, such as renewable energy and nuclear power so as to protect our energy security."

Other than stopping the imports of Russian products including machinery, wood products and vodka from next week, Japan has also barred new investments in Russia and will step up financial sanctions by freezing the assets of Sberbank, Russia's largest bank, and Alfa-Bank.

Mr Kishida said Japan was expanding the scope of its sanctions to cover a total of 550 individuals - from the current 400 - and 40 organisations.

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Japan has thus far acted in line with the G-7 bloc by removing Moscow from the international payment network Swift, and freezing central bank assets.

It has also frozen the assets of President Vladimir Putin, as well as other Russian officials, oligarchs, banks and other institutions, while banning the export of advanced technology to Russia.

Mr Kishida on Friday recognised the impact that the Ukraine conflict has had across the world, with prices soaring due to an energy crunch.

Japan is releasing about 15 million barrels of its petroleum reserves over the next six months, becoming the second-largest contributor to global stocks after the 60 million barrels of the US.

Mr Kishida noted that this was the first time Japan was releasing its reserves, saying that he hoped the global effort in line with the International Energy Agency would stabilise the energy market and in turn the world economy.

Domestically, he said that his government was working to put together a comprehensive economic package within the month to alleviate the increasing stress on the Japanese people given soaring oil and food prices.

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