National / Politics

Not 'partners': Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin on collision course over islands at summit talks in Moscow


The leaders of Japan and Russia will hold crunch summit talks in Moscow on Tuesday, with the two countries locked in an undiplomatic war of words over disputed islands claimed by both.

Simmering tension between Moscow and Tokyo over the islands off the northern coast of Hokkaido, known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, has ramped up in recent weeks, with Russia angrily accusing Japan of whipping up tension ahead of the summit and failing to accept it lost World War II.

Setting the tone for the talks, a foreign policy advisor for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yuri Ushakov, admitted the meeting would “not be easy.”

The then-Soviet Union seized the four islands in the closing days of World War II. The dispute over their sovereignty has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty — a situation both nations have vowed to rectify.

During a New Year’s address, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sparked outrage in Moscow when he spoke of the need to help Russian residents on the disputed islands “accept and understand that the sovereignty of their homes will change.”

A furious Russia summoned the Japanese ambassador to complain that Abe’s statements were an “attempt to artificially stir up the atmosphere” over the issue of a possible peace treaty.

Moscow also fumed Japan was trying to “disorientate” the public and that the Japanese leader’s statements “flagrantly distort the essence of the agreements” reached by Putin and Abe in Singapore in November, where they vowed to accelerate efforts toward peace.

Talks lasting several hours between the foreign ministers of the two countries Monday failed to improve the situation, with Taro Kono and Sergei Lavrov not even appearing together for a joint news conference.

And at his own New Year’s news conference, Lavrov said the two countries were “still far from being partners in international relations.”

“Why is Japan the only country in the world that cannot accept the results of World War II in their entirety?” he asked.

He also lashed out at the pro-Western bias of Japan — the key U.S. ally in the region.

“Japan votes not with us but against us on all the resolutions that interest Russia in the U.N.,” Moscow’s top diplomat said.

Putin aide Ushakov was clear that the sovereignty of the islands was not up for negotiation.

Russia owns the islands legally “according to the results of World War II” and has no plans to hand them over to Tokyo, he said.

“This is our land, and nobody is going to give this land to anybody.”

Tensions between the pair have been stoked by actions as well as words.

In December, Russia said it had built four new military barracks on the islands as it ramps up “military and social infrastructure” there.

Moscow has already deployed missile systems on the islands, sparking protests from Japan.

James Brown, an expert on Japan-Russia relations at Temple University in Tokyo, predicted Putin would take a softer tone than Lavrov but admitted prospects for the talks were “not promising.”

“Whether they can make some real progress is really questionable because the Russian position is very, very clear: They have said so many times now that Japan must recognize Russian sovereignty over the four islands as a result of World War II,” said Brown.

“And if Japan does that, they have no basis for their claim to the islands. So it really seems that the gap between the two sides is as wide as ever,” the analyst said.

“I don’t really see a pathway to an agreement.”

The view from Moscow is scarcely more conciliatory, with independent analyst Vladimir Frolov saying the Russian position has “significantly hardened.”

Another political analyst, Fyodor Lukyanov, noted: “It is unpopular in any country to give up even small amounts of territory, but in Russia it would be especially so today given the difficult domestic situation.”

“To start a campaign giving away land now would not be timely,” he added, citing social discontent on issues such as pension reform and rising food prices.