Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) during their bilateral meeting at the Kremlin on January 22 2019 in Moscow, Russia. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ MIKHAIL SVETLOV
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) during their bilateral meeting at the Kremlin on January 22 2019 in Moscow, Russia. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ MIKHAIL SVETLOV

Moscow — The leaders of Russia and Japan were meeting in Moscow on Tuesday for talks over a disputed island chain that has long prevented agreement on a peace treaty to formally end World War 2.

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 co-operation despite their territorial disagreement.

The Soviet army seized the four Kuril islands, between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, in the last days of World War 2.

Tokyo’s refusal to recognise Moscow’s sovereignty there has been a barrier to peace for more than seven decades.

Ahead of closed-door talks, Putin told Abe that diplomats on both sides have “worked a lot … on the issues surrounding the peace agreement”, while Abe responded that he is interested in developing ties.

But despite their good personal rapport and a flurry of diplomacy since November, when the two leaders agreed to accelerate peace talks, recent statements from both capitals suggest a compromise is still far off.

Moscow responded furiously to a New Year’s message from Abe 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 Sergey Lavrov said Japan should stop referring to the islands as its Northern Territories in legislation and described Tokyo’s military alliance with Washington as problematic.

Tokyo needs 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 2 in their entirety?” 

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the negotiations would likely be a drawn-out process, further cooling hopes for a quick resolution.

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.

Peskov said on Monday 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 US.

Japan’s Kyodo news agency, citing government sources, said Abe was leaning towards 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 islands, Shikotan and Habomai, which is actually a group of uninhabited islets.

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 Hokkaido island.

Giving away even uninhabited islands would be poorly received in Russia, where World War 2 is hugely symbolic and post-war territorial gains are seen as non-negotiable.

On Tuesday, a small group of protesters holding leftist red flags gathered near the Japanese embassy in Moscow. Leftist politician Sergei Udaltsov wrote on Facebook that 11 people were detained by police.

An opinion poll by independent Russian pollster Levada Centre last month suggested that 74% of Russians would not support exchanging some of the islands for a peace deal, while only 17% said they would.

To make a deal work “a vast majority of the public in Russia and Japan must support the agreement”, so the Kremlin has to either convince Russians the decision is for the public good or miss a rare opportunity to improve ties with its Asian neighbour, Dmitri Trenin, who heads the Carnegie Moscow Centre, wrote in the Vedomosti newspaper.

Russian state television has been unenthusiastic about the summit.

Top news presenter Dmitry Kiselyov disputed the very notion that Japan could be a friend of Russia as long as it opposed Moscow’s policies and had US military “occupying” its territory.

As for the Kurils, Kiselyov said on his popular News of the Week show that 90% of Russians were against giving any of them back to Tokyo.

“Would Putin want to ignore this powerful public opinion?” he asked. “Impossible,” he said.