Russia and Japan’s leaders hold summit to break island impasse

Vastavam web: Russia and Japan’s leaders meet for talks in Moscow Tuesday over the disputed island chain that has long prevented a peace treaty to end World War II. But recent rhetoric has dampened hopes of a breakthrough. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit marks the 25th time he and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met since 2013, a reflection of their efforts to build cooperation despite their disagreement over the Kuril islands. The Soviet Army seized the four islands, between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, in the last days of World War II. Moscow responded furiously to Abe’s New Year’s message, in which he said Russians living on the islands should be helped to accept that the “sovereignty of their homes will change”.

Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Japan needed to stop referring to the islands as its “Northern Territories” in legislation. He also described Tokyo’s military alliance with Washington as problematic. To get the talks moving, Tokyo needed to recognise Russia’s sovereignty over the Kurils, said Lavrov. “Why is Japan the only country in the world that cannot accept the results of World War II in their entirety?” he asked. Before his departure he acknowledged that “negotiations with Russia have been a challenge for more than 70 years” and hoped for “candid talks” with Putin.

The two leaders have demonstrated a good personal relationship since Abe’s historic first visit to Moscow in 2013. Abe said in an interview published Monday by Kommersant daily that he and Putin have fully agreed to resolve the dispute “with our own hands and not pass the problem on to future generations”. Kremlin spokesman Peskov on Monday said that Japan had not so far made any official proposals based on claiming just two of the islands in the chain. This possibility was mooted by the Soviet Union in the 1950s, prior to Tokyo’s alliance with the United States. The chain ensures Russia’s strategic control of the Sea of Okhotsk, and some southern islands in the chain are less than 10 kilometres (six miles) from Japan’s island of Hokkaido.

Giving away even uninhabited islands would be hugely symbolic and poorly received in Russia. Several protests were held in recent weeks against ceding any territory to Japan, and Putin’s sliding ratings would further suffer from such a move.