DANANG, VIETNAM – Concluding a peace treaty with Japan would involve Moscow examining how it could be affected by Tokyo’s security commitments to its allies, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday.
Russia and Japan never formally ended their hostilities after World War II because of a dispute over a chain of islands in the Pacific.
Putin was speaking at the end of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam at which he said he discussed talks on the treaty with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Japan has a long-standing defense alliance with the United States, a stance that sits uncomfortably with Moscow, which has often accused Washington of projecting its military might close to Russia’s borders.
“I want to say that here there are lots of questions regarding the peace treaty,” Putin told reporters.
“Its not a secret that we also need to look at what commitments Japan has towards its partners in the areas of defense and security, and how that will influence the progress of the negotiating process on the peace treaty between Russia and Japan.”
Putin said Moscow needed to examine “what commitments Japan has and what she can do, and cannot do, independently. It’s entirely natural, if there are some commitments, that they obviously have to be observed, and how does that impact our relations with Japan?”
“We all have to understand that it’s a lot of work, and maybe it is indeed not a question of just one year,” the Russian leader said at a news conference in the Vietnamese city of Danang, where the APEC summit was held.
Soviet forces occupied four of the islands in the southern part of the chain near Hokkaido at the end of WWII.
Putin said there were some aspects of the dispute that can already be addressed, including easing visa restrictions for Japanese citizens to visit the disputed islands, and establishing economic cooperation there.
“That it to say, there are certain things that can be done right away, some things probably will take a long time,” Putin said. “It does not depend on who is in office; Abe, Putin or someone else,” Putin said.
“It’s important that our countries, our peoples are resolved on a long-term resolution of all the problems to create a favorable environment for our relations to develop.”
Putin’s comments come on the heels of a meeting held between him and Abe on Friday night, in which the Russian leader agreed to strictly implement U.N. sanctions on North Korea.
The meeting also focused on joint economic programs that the two countries plan to launch on the disputed Russian-held islands.
At the outset of their meeting, Putin said he is “very pleased” that ties between the two countries are “steadily developing,” backed by active political dialogue and progress on economic cooperation. The talks lasted for an hour.
A senior Japanese official told reporters that the two leaders also held a separate 15-minute conversation, accompanied only by their interpreters, that mainly focused on issues related to the disputed islands. The official declined to disclose the specifics of the discussions.
The meeting, their 20th, took place on the sidelines of a regional summit and just days after the prime minister and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to maximize pressure on North Korea until it changes its nuclear and missile policies.
When Abe held his formal meeting with Trump in Tokyo on Monday, the leaders agreed that more cooperation from China and Russia is needed to rein in North Korea.
Pyongyang has halted its string of provocative arms tests for nearly two months now, but it has not shown any sign of relenting in its quest to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
Meeting before the opening of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit, Abe told Putin that he wants to discuss steps toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Still, China and Russia, two of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have diplomatic and economic ties with North Korea, and they are traditionally reluctant to push Pyongyang into a corner.
In the talks with Putin, Abe asked Russia to play a “larger role” in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat, according to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami, who attended the meeting and provided a briefing about some its contents.
Also a major topic of the Abe-Putin meeting was the joint economic projects for the islands off Hokkaido, which are at the center of a territorial dispute dating back to the end of World War II.
Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets were seized by the Soviet Union in 1945 after Japan’s surrender in World War II. The sovereignty dispute has prevented Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty to formally end the war.
When Abe and Putin last held talks in September in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, both sides agreed to designate five candidate areas for the projects and to undertake each as quickly as possible.
Abe said an agreement had also been reached Friday to speed up preparations “toward next spring” for starting activities in the five project areas.
Abe plans to visit Russia in May. Japan is seeking tangible progress on the projects as soon as possible, and both sides have agreed to organize a meeting of senior officials.
The projects include aquaculture and wind power. While Russia is eager to develop its Far East, Japan hopes that carrying out the projects will pave the way toward settling the long-running dispute.