MOSCOW - In a move that could further delay the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries, Russia has rejected starting talks with Japan on the return of two disputed islands despite an agreement made last year, diplomatic sources said Sunday.
Russia is concerned that a falling support rate for President Vladimir Putin may drop further if it cedes two of the four contested islands off Hokkaido, the sources said.
Moscow has been reluctant to return the islands, saying the presence of U.S. military forces in Japan remains a threat.
The two countries had sought to resolve the prolonged territorial dispute as it remains a sticking point preventing them from concluding a peace treaty more than 70 years after the end of World War II.
Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed last November to step up talks on a peace treaty based on a key 1956 joint declaration.
The declaration mentions Moscow handing over two of the four disputed islands — Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — once a peace treaty is concluded.
Opposition lawmakers in Japan condemned the latest agreement as a shift in the Abe government’s policy on the islands, to now seek the return of two of them rather than all four.
The two countries have made little progress in their talks since the November agreement and Russia’s reluctance to start negotiations even on the return of the two islands indicates that at least for the time being the negotiations will go nowhere.
The Japanese government once aimed to reach a broad agreement on the treaty with Russia by the time of the meeting between Abe and Putin late last month on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka.
But Tokyo gave up on the attempt due to persisting differences over how to settle the territorial dispute.
During last month’s summit, Abe and Putin made little headway in their talks and agreed only to continue negotiations on the territorial dispute.
The Soviet Union seized the islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, straddling the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean after Japan’s surrender in 1945.