Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan on June 28 will not bring the hoped-for breakthrough in the countries' territorial dispute. Yet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can still salvage something from the wreckage of his Russia policy by agreeing to Moscow's proposal to create a visa-free area between Hokkaido and Sakhalin, including the disputed islands. This will not see the return of the islands to Japan, but it would see the return of Japanese to the islands.

For three years, Abe has worked tirelessly to secure a resolution to Japan's territorial dispute with Russia over the islands off the coast of Hokkaido (known in Russia as the Southern Kurils). Announced in May 2016, Japan's "new approach" saw Abe cultivate close personal ties with Putin and offer economic incentives via an eight-point economic cooperation plan.

In November, Tokyo also conceded to basing territorial talks on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration. This is significant because the document only mentions the two smaller of the four disputed islands, thereby signaling Abe's willingness to settle for just 7 percent of the disputed landmass.