MUNICH - Russia has no time frame for agreeing on a postwar peace treaty with Japan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Saturday, after he and his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono made scant progress in talks.
The comments are a blow for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is believed to be setting his sights on reaching a broad treaty agreement in June when Russian President Vladimir Putin is due to visit Japan for the Group of 20 summit.
“The Russian side has no time frame. We explained to the Japanese side calmly” that nothing could be scheduled, Lavrov told reporters after talks in Munich on the sidelines of an annual security conference.
Deep divisions remain over a decades-old territorial dispute.
Lavrov reiterated that Japan should recognize the acquisition by Moscow of four islands off the coast of Hokkaido as the outcome of World War II, while Tokyo maintains the islands were illegally seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s 1945 surrender.
Kono told reporters after the meeting that treaty talks cannot be concluded “overnight” and that both countries need to continue negotiations “patiently.”
“We had very deep discussions to find a solution that is acceptable to both sides,” he said without elaborating. “We’ve been going forward, though not quickly.”
The two ministers agreed to another round of talks in Japan. Senior Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Takeo Mori and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov will meet soon to discuss the schedule.
The Munich meeting was a follow-up to a summit between Abe and Putin in Moscow, in January, when the leaders discussed the issue of the islands on the basis of a 1956 joint declaration, but made little headway.
Abe and Putin agreed in November to accelerate treaty talks based on the joint declaration, which mentions the transfer of the smaller two of the four islands — Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — from Moscow to Tokyo once a peace pact is concluded.
Putin is sticking to demands that Tokyo first acknowledge Moscow’s sovereignty over the islands.
The fate of the remaining two islands is the biggest sticking point, with Tokyo unwilling to give up its claims, a Japanese official said.
Putin’s offer “is the best deal that could be on the table, but there doesn’t seem to be much hope left now,” said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin.
The likelihood of an immediate breakthrough seems slim. Not only do the countries have differing interpretations of the joint declaration, but opposition lawmakers in Japan have taken issue with Abe’s perceived shift in policy to seek the return of two, rather than all four, of the islands.
Both Abe and Kono have refrained from disclosing details of the ongoing negotiations. Moscow, for its part, is also seen as reluctant to return the territories given the presence of U.S. military forces in Japan.
The latest talks between Kono and Lavrov were held after the United States announced in early February its withdrawal from a Cold War-era nuclear arms control treaty.
Lavrov said this month there is a “certain link” between the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Kuril Islands chain, of which the four disputed islands form a part, according to Russia’s Tass news agency.
He also took issue with Japan’s planned installment of U.S. land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense systems, Tass reported.
Japan is not part of the 1987 treaty that bans the development and possession of land-based missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers.
The dispute over the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has prevented the conclusion of a peace treaty to formally end World War II hostilities.