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Putin denies existence of territorial dispute with Japan

Kyodo, AFP-JIJI

Vladimir Putin denied Tuesday that there is a territorial dispute over the Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands off Hokkaido, and said Japan must make concessions to conclude a bilateral World War II peace treaty.

“We believe we have no territorial problems at all. It is only Japan that believes it has territorial problems with Russia. We are ready to talk about this,” the Russian president said in an interview with Japanese TV ahead of his visit to Japan this week for a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

During the interview, Putin said Japan’s stance of addressing all four of the islands, including Etorofu and Kunashiri, and concluding a peace treaty go beyond the framework of a 1956 joint declaration and is a “separate matter.”

The conclusion of a peace treaty will “depend, among other things, on the flexibility” of Japan, he said.

On the territorial dispute, Putin has repeatedly affirmed the validity of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which said the two smaller islands — Shikotan and the Habomai islets group — will be handed over to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

Putin also said Russia will strive to reach an elusive deal on the territorial dispute and normalize relations with Japan.

“The absence of a peace treaty between Russia and Japan is an anachronism inherited from the past and this anachronism should be eliminated. But how to do this is a difficult question,” he said, according to a transcript of the interview released by the Kremlin.

The Putin-Abe talks will focus on overcoming the odds and reaching a deal on the four islands that were seized by Soviet troops in 1945.

Putin said the absence of a peace treaty is also impacting bilateral ties.

“We, of course, will strive to conclude this treaty,” Putin said. “We want full normalization of our relations.”

He will visit Japan for two days from Thursday as the first Russian president to do so in around 11 years. His visit was initially eyed in 2014 but was postponed due to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine in March 2014, causing its ties with the West and Japan to deteriorate.

In what will be Abe’s 16th one-on-one meeting with Putin, including during his first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, and the fourth this year, he is hoping Putin will move the territorial issue forward as it prevents the two nations from signing a peace treaty.

Putin expressed opposition to Japan’s maintaining of economic sanctions on Russia, in line with Western countries, in retaliation for the Crimea annexation.

“Japan has joined the sanctions against the Russian Federation. How are we going to further economic relations on a new and much higher basis, at a higher level under the sanctions regime?” Putin asked.

Meanwhile, a senior Russian official said the conclusion of the peace treaty faces difficulties — including the dispute over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido — that are “virtually impossible” to overcome.

“Any serious discussions on the (peace treaty) issue are possible only under the condition that Japan fully recognized the result of the World War II,” said the official, calling on Tokyo to accept that the islands are under Russian sovereignty.

Tokyo maintains the stance that the islands are inherent Japanese territory and were illegally seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in August 1945.

The Russian official, who will accompany Putin to Japan, said the two countries should first build mutual trust and develop a bilateral relationship before concluding a peace treaty.

No new political statement will be released following the summit between Abe and Putin because their previous joint statement issued in 2013 has not been implemented due to Japan’s economic sanctions and the freeze in bilateral dialogue, another high-ranking official at the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

On the possibility of Japan and Russia conducting joint economic activities on the disputed islands, the senior Russian official said Abe and Putin are expected to make an announcement on the subject and instruct their foreign ministries to start talks over the conditions and formats of engaging in such joint activities.

The official said the resumption of the “two-plus-two” dialogue between the two countries’ defense and foreign ministers is “essential for building mutual trust that contributes to finding a solution on difficult issues.”

The Russian officials met with the Japanese press on condition of anonymity.

Abe will host the Russian leader at a hot spring resort in his ancestral city of Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture — a location the Kremlin strongman said he hopes will be conducive to “a frank, very substantive and, I hope, fruitful conversation.”

In his meeting with Japanese journalists at the Kremlin, Putin showed off a female Akita Inu dog named Yume that was given to him as a puppy by Japan in 2012 in return for Russia’s help in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Japan had offered to give Putin a “bridegroom” for the dog on his upcoming visit, but he turned this down, an aide to Abe said Sunday.

Putin had earlier introduced Yume to Abe when he visited the Black Sea city of Sochi in 2014.

Putin said Yume is “in great form,” and is a “strict” guard dog.