The remark by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Japan and Russia should conclude a formal World War II peace treaty “without any preconditions” by the end of the year underscores the lack of progress in Tokyo’s efforts to resolve the long-standing territorial dispute with Moscow before signing a peace treaty. Given the stalled talks over the dispute, the statement can be construed as a call by Putin to effectively shelve the row over the group of islands off Hokkaido seized by Soviet forces in 1945 — a proposition unacceptable either in terms of popular sentiment in Japan or from any strategic viewpoint. Tokyo should not be swayed in its position by the surprise remark and step up the efforts to address the territorial row with Russia.
Putin made the remark during the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Wednesday that was attended by the region’s leaders, including Abe himself. Abe, who during both his stints as prime minister has held 22 summits with Putin, counts on his close personal rapport with the Russian leader as leverage to move the bilateral relations forward. In what has been billed as a “new approach” to bilateral ties, Abe has sought to expand economic cooperation with Russia, including joint economic projects on the disputed islands, to build an environment for better relations that paves the way for settling the territorial row.
However, working-level talks between the Japanese and Russian governments on sovereignty over the Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan islands and the Habomai group of islets have not been held since summer 2016. During their latest summit, Abe and Putin reportedly agreed on a road map toward enabling the joint economic activities on the disputed islands, including tourism development and cultivation of marine products, and the dispatch of a Japanese mission to the islands next month. However, the two governments remain at loggerheads over a special arrangement that would allow Japan to engage in the project on the Russian-controlled islands without hurting its territorial legal claim. Russia, which welcomes Japanese investment and technology for the development of its Far Eastern areas, is unwilling to accept such an arrangement over the islands that it claims were incorporated into its territory legitimately as a result of World War II.
The intention behind Putin’s remarks are not clear. Such a remark was not made in his direct talks with Abe on Monday. During the plenary session of the forum, Putin said he just hit on the idea of concluding a peace treaty by the year’s end — after complaining that Japan unilaterally rejected the implementation of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which said that Moscow would hand over Habomai and Shikotan after the two governments conclude a formal peace treaty. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that Japan’s position of resolving the question of sovereignty over the Northern Territories before concluding a peace treaty remains unchanged. The government reportedly has no plan to try to confirm with Moscow what Putin meant by the remark.
Whatever Putin’s motives are, Russia does not appear ready to make any compromise over the territorial row. It continues to build up military installations in its Far East region, including the disputed islands. It deployed ground-to-ship missiles on Kunashiri and Etorofu in 2016 and warned that returning any of the disputed islands would lead to creation of a U.S. military base there. Putin himself continues to maintain a rigid position on the territorial row.
Abe says he and Putin “share the view that it is an abnormal situation that Japan and Russia still have not concluded a peace treaty” more than 70 years after the war ended. That is indeed an abnormal situation that should be fixed. However, the two governments seem to remain divided over what they expect in a peace treaty with each other. And the gap seems no narrower even though Abe built up his personal rapport with Putin through a series of summits when tensions mounted between the United States and Europe with Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
There is no need to overreact to Putin’s peace treaty remark. But it does reflect the dearth of progress in the bilateral territorial dispute under the government’s “new approach.” Abe emphasizes his determination to work with Putin to put an end to the dispute. Moves toward joint economic development of the disputed islands may represent positive steps, but it remains unclear how those developments will actually lead to settling the long-standing territorial row. Putin’s latest statement should prompt Tokyo to re-examine whether its current approach to relations with Moscow is having the intended effect of moving talks on the territorial dispute forward.