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Ending a Long Cool War

Ninety-two years ago Russia's Baltic fleet sailed round the world to its doom at the hands of the Japanese Navy in one of history's most decisive naval engagements, the battle of Tsushima Strait.

The voyage took 7-1/2 months. Repairing the breach between Moscow and Tokyo has taken more or less the rest of the century.

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Now, at last, the Russo-Japanese cool war that got even colder at the end of World War II seems dramatically nearer an end. That welcome change came after the so-called sauna summit, where Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged to reach a peace treaty by 2000.

The two nations' rancor centered on their quarrel over Moscow's control of the southern Kurile Islands, annexed from Japan as war spoils at the end of World War II. It isn't yet clear how Messrs. Yeltsin and Hashimoto plan to resolve their Solomonic maternity problem over title to the islands in time for treaty signing.

The benefits of improved relations to both sides have long been clear - outweighing the value of the islands. Energy-importing Japan has strong reason to hope for access to the presumably huge oil reserves of Kamchatka Island and the mineral and timber resources of other parts of the Russian Far East. Russia's "wild east," in turn, wants to take advantage of its Pacific orientation in trade, cultural, and just plain wealth terms.

After the two leaders emerged from meetings in Krasnoyarsk (Siberia), Mr. Hashimoto said he would back Russia's entry into the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group.

Americans might recall how baseball came to eastern Siberia. A youth team in the city of Khabarovsk got its start under an American manager but with uniforms and equipment from Japan. That's what those Russians who face the Pacific, rather than Europe, would like to see as symbolic of their future.

It's true that some early dreams of Japan needing Siberian minerals and timber to manufacture exports have long since disappeared as the silicon/plastic age changed East Asia's resource needs. But timber and paper pulp will be in demand as the region continues to grow and shrinks its own forests. And China joins Japan in requiring more petroleum sources as its economy keeps growing.

Needless to say, the rest of the great power world will justifiably breathe a sigh of relief if the Hashimoto-Yeltsin pledge is fulfilled two years hence. The summit ended with a bear hug and a manly kiss. Perhaps other world leaders at odds ought to try that approach.

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