The diplomatic drama unfolding between Japan and Russia once again appears poised to reach another historic low in tragedy. It was reported in mid-April that Tokyo has decided not to pursue a broad agreement on a World War II peace treaty when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June. The latest impasse attests to the enduring quandary surrounding the territorial question over the four islands off Hokkaido — called the southern Kuril Islands by Russia — that were seized by Soviet forces in 1945.

While Abe has been courting Putin’s favor indefatigably since 2013 in the hope of a diplomatic breakthrough, the upshot of the last 25 summits and countless ministerial meetings reveals the prime minister’s misguided strategy shaped by ever-shifting goals pursued with questionable means. Moreover, Moscow’s growing international clout increasingly forces Tokyo into a disadvantageous negotiating position, posing a fundamental question for Abe to ponder: to cut or not to cut the “Kurillian knot.”

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