Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to host Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for talks expected to be dominated by a territorial issue over a disputed island chain that has long prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty to formally end World War II.
Abe’s visit on Tuesday marks the 25th time he and Putin have met since 2013, a reflection of their efforts to increase cooperation despite the decades-old 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.
Tokyo’s refusal to recognise Moscow’s sovereignty over the islands – known as the Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan – has obstructed the path to peace for more than seven decades.
Despite a flurry of diplomacy since November, when the two leaders agreed to step up peace talks, recent statements from both capitals have dampened hopes of a breakthrough.
Moscow responded angrily 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, following a meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Japan needed to stop referring to the islands as its “Northern Territories” in legislation.
He also stressed that Moscow’s sovereignty over the islands was not up for discussion, adding that this needed to be recognised by Tokyo in order to get the talks moving.
“Why is Japan the only country in the world that cannot accept the results of World War II in their entirety?” he asked, while describing Tokyo’s military alliance with Washington as problematic.
On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov further cooled hopes for a quick breakthrough when he said the peace negotiations were “in their initial stage” and would likely be a “drawn out” process.
Abe’s Moscow visit is the first leg of a trip to Europe, which will also include a speech at the Davos forum in Switzerland on Wednesday.
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 on 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”.
Peskov on Monday also 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.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency, citing government sources, said Abe was leaning toward accepting this framework for a peace deal.
But it is not clear whether the Kremlin would be keen to transfer sovereignty even for the two smaller and uninhabited islands, Shikotan and Habomai.
The chain ensures Russia’s strategic control of the Sea of Okhotsk, and some southern islands in the chain are less than 10km 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.
On Sunday, between 300 and 500 protesters gathered on Suvorovskaya Square, just outside Moscow city centre, for an authorised rally called by several nationalist politicians opposing to any move to cede any of the four islands.
Meanwhile, a poll by independent Russian pollster Levada Centre last month suggested that 74 percent of Russians would not support exchanging some of the islands for a peace deal, while only 17 percent said they would.