• Bloomberg, Staff Report


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was set Friday to hold a rare meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, marking a breakthrough in the Kremlin’s efforts to end Russia’s two-year isolation over Ukraine.

Abe was to meet with the political outcast in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. He has argued for engaging the Russian leader to further his goal of solving the prolonged World War II dispute over four Russia-held islands off Hokkaido.

Russia played down expectations for serious progress on the dispute, even as officials sought to gain political capital from Abe’s decision to go.

“This is yet another indication that Obama’s policy of isolation has failed,” said Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament. “It’s an important visit that shows that Japan has decided not to put all its eggs in one basket.”

Abe, America’s key ally in the Asia-Pacific, has rejected President Barack Obama’s request not to visit Russia, Kyodo reported Feb. 24.

Russian state media said Tokyo is now well-placed to act as a third party in Moscow’s dealings with Washington.

“Obviously, Japan will try to act as a kind of mediator in the talks process between Russia and the U.S.,” Russian government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta said Thursday.

Russia is seeking to improve international ties. Abe’s trip will be followed by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s trip next month to St. Petersburg. Russia’s economy is stuck in its longest recession in two decades, provoked by a collapse in oil prices and international sanctions over its role in the Ukrainian annexation crisis.

Japan hosts the G-7 Ise-Shima summit later this month. The U.S. says the “continued unity” of its partners is vital in approaching Russia, State Department spokesman Noel Clay said by email.

The governments in Tokyo and Moscow have yet to sign a peace treaty to end World War II after the Soviets seized four islands known to Tokyo as the Northern Territories. Moscow calls them the Southern Kurils.

The fact that Japan is trying to maintain relations in the face of U.S. pressure will allow the two sides to tackle “all the different problems,” Putin said last month.

Putin was to propose new cooperation in trade, finance and the economy at the meeting, according to the Kremlin.

The dispute over the islands was scheduled to be raised, although it is a “difficult” issue that requires a much closer partnership, foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters Thursday.

“It is difficult, and in order for us to reach a mutually acceptable solution it will require more than one meeting, more than one round of consultations between the foreign ministries,” Ushakov said.

But Abe’s visit will give a “new impetus” to ties, he added, emphasizing Moscow will expect cooperation from Tokyo in a range of areas, including international affairs.

In 2013, Abe was the first Japanese leader to make an official visit to Russia in a decade, as he sought resolve differences and expand energy supplies. Relations grew strained shortly after he visited the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, when Japan joined the U.S. and the European Union in penalizing Russia for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula.

“This is the worst possible time for going soft on Russia,” said James Brown, an associate professor at Temple University in Tokyo. “Abe is taking a very big risk because other G-7 members have made it very clear they don’t think it’s a very good idea.”

Japan doesn’t have the luxury of shunning Russia because neighbors China and South Korea view Tokyo with deep suspicion, said Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. While Abe is not naive enough to believe he can quickly resolve up the territorial dispute, he is willing to promote Japanese investment and loans to Russia to diminish China’s role, Baunov said.

“Japan is a country that is friendless in its own backyard, so ties with Russia are very important for it,” he said.

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