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MOSCOW (Kyodo) Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has indicated that conditions are not yet ripe for Russia and Japan to achieve a breakthrough in the decades-old territorial dispute over four Russian-controlled islands off Hokkaido.

“It is necessary (for the two countries) to prepare the conditions, to develop the relations in all directions,” Putin said during a group interview ahead of his visit to Japan on Monday.

“In order to resolve such high-level and difficult problems, it is necessary to show patience, attention to each other’s interests,” Putin said, noting the two countries need “not to put the situation into a deadlock by permanent pretensions and confrontation.”

His remarks suggest Moscow is prioritizing economic and trade ties with Japan over settlement of the dispute at a time when Japanese expectations have been growing since the two agreed in February to take a “creative and unconventional approach” to the issue.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Taro Aso agreed in their talks in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital of the Sakhalin region, to intensify efforts for resolving the issue by taking a new approach. But no tangible steps emerged.

Putin, who met the Japanese media for the first time since assuming the premiership in May last year, said Tokyo “still has not formulated its position exactly” on how to seek a resolution.

The 56-year-old prime minister was referring to remarks reported made by former Vice Foreign Minister Shotaro Yachi calling for the return of “3.5” of the four Russian-controlled islands rather than the reversion of all of them.

Yachi, currently a special envoy on key diplomatic issues, later denied making the comments in an interview with the daily Mainichi Shimbun in April. Prime Minister Aso maintains Tokyo will not conclude a peace treaty with Moscow unless Russia confirms all four islands belong to Japan.

Tokyo has been calling for the return of all four islands — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group. The territorial dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a post-World War II peace treaty.

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