• Kyodo

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Senior Japanese diplomats and their Russian counterparts will meet in Moscow on Feb. 12 to lay the groundwork for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s planned visit to Japan this year, a source said Saturday. The delegations will include vice foreign ministers.

The talks, originally scheduled for last August, were shelved after Japan imposed additional sanctions following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. The two nations last held vice-ministerial level talks in late January 2014.

Shinsuke Sugiyama, deputy foreign minister for political affairs, and Russian counterpart Igor Morgulov are expected to discuss the long-running dispute over four Russia-held islands off Hokkaido that has prevented the two countries from concluding a peace treaty to end the war, the source said.

The territorial row involves Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets. The four were seized by Moscow toward the end of World War II.

The two nations are also expected to explore the possibility of having Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida visit Russia. His trip was supposed to take place last April to pave the way for Putin’s envisioned visit to Japan last fall, the source said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Putin agreed in November in Beijing to begin preparations for the latter’s visit at a “suitable” time in 2015.

No major progress is expected in the Sugiyama-Morgulov meeting, particularly regarding the islands, as Japan treads a difficult path balancing economic cooperation with Russia with a commitment to act in coordination with the United States and the European Union in pressuring Moscow over its continued support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.

Russia, in the meantime, has been struggling economically to deal with a weakened ruble and falling crude oil prices.

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