Today's summit between Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin comes at an opportune moment but may founder on the old problem of the Kuril Islands, which Japan still wants back.
The two wrestled for hours with the problem that has stymied Russian and Japanese leaders for almost 70 years: how to find a mutually acceptable and hopefully profitable way to finally end World War II.
"The leaders of both countries agreed that the situation where, 67 years after the conclusion of [World War II], we have still been unable to conclude a bilateral peace treaty, looks abnormal," said a joint statement at the meeting's end Monday.
"We have ordered our foreign ministries to intensify contacts with an aim to developing a mutually acceptable plan. This will prioritize two parallel processes: discussion of the main subjects of the peace agreement and, simultaneously, ways to actively promote improvements across the full range of Russian-Japanese relations," it said.
Many new circumstances are driving Moscow and Tokyo to take a fresh look at each other, despite the debate that has raged since the end of World War II about the rightful ownership of the Kuril Islands, which Russia has occupied since the end of the war but Japan still claims. The dispute is the major reason the two nations never signed a peace treaty.
As Russia's geopolitical focus pivots eastward, Moscow is also eager for outside investment and expertise to develop its vast, resource-rich but largely unpopulated Siberian and far eastern regions. Japan is a logical go-to place for the capital and technology that Russia needs.
Japan might also be keen to distract Russia from its burgeoning partnership with China, with which Tokyo has increasingly tense relations, and introduce a bit more balance in fast-changing Asia Pacific.
Mr. Abe brought with him a delegation of 120 Japanese business leaders, some of whom told journalists they are eager to see a "road map" prepared for intensive Russo-Japanese cooperation in resources, energy, infrastructure, and even high-tech industries. In a brief statement following the talks, the Kremlin announced that the two leaders had signed a series of modest agreements aimed at promoting cultural interchange, strengthening intergovernmental cooperation, and improving financial arrangements for Russian infrastructure projects.
But there is one big obstacle that continues to stand in the way of any true breakthrough: the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands. These four small specks of land off Japan's northern tip were occupied by Soviet forces in the waning days of World War II, and resolving their status looks as unsolvable as ever. Without a deal over them, no formal peace treaty seems even remotely possible.
"There is a mutual wish to find a solution to the Kuril issue," says Anatoly Koshkin, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.
"Japan is really interested at this stage to inject some dynamism into its relations with Russia. It has complicated problems all around, including territorial disputes with China and South Korea, so a political breakthrough with Russia would be welcome," he says, adding that "Japan is interested, especially since Fukushima, in Russian coal and energy supplies. Russia already provides 9 percent of Japan's gas, but this looks set to rise. In July Japan will have elections to the upper house of parliament, and it would be good for Abe if he could demonstrate a success in foreign policy."
"But with all that said, I really don't see any solution to the Kuril problem just now. I don't expect Russia to change its position" and agree to give the islands back to Japan, he says.
The four islands – Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan, and Habomai – which Russia calls the "southern Kurils," and Japan refers to as its "northern territories," have been the subject of futile negotiations for decades. The outlines of a compromise have been apparent since 1956, when reformist Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev offered to return the two southernmost islands, Shikotan and Habomai, and Japan agreed that its claim to the other two was "weak."
Russia's official attitude has seesawed ever since. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev insisted in the 1970s that "there is no such territorial dispute" over the Kurils, even as the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, admitted in 1990 that "the problem exists."
The pro-Western Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, in a typical flamboyant gesture, pledged to resolve the issue by the end of his second term in 2000. He never did.
Since then, especially under Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the dispute has become seriously inflamed, with nationalists on both sides using it to stir up passions in the absence of any diplomatic dialogue whatsoever. As recently as last February, the Japanese armed forces scrambled fighter planes to intercept an alleged incursion by Russian jets into Japanese airspace near the Kurils.
But Putin intrigued many observers recently by saying the dispute could be settled with "hiki-wake," a judo term that means "a draw." Experts say that probably means the Kremlin is leaning toward the old 1956 formula, which would involve giving two of the islands back to Japan.
"This issue has been talked to death by experts. Literally dozens of different plans have been floated over the years," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign-affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.
"The problem has never been a shortage of ideas. It's always been about a lack of political will to deal with it. Experts discuss, leaders act.... But we would need to see some strong reasons for Russian leaders to move dramatically on this. Japan could show us how it might be instrumental in helping to develop Siberia and the far east of Russia," he adds.
"But right now all eyes in Moscow are focused on China. The Chinese lobby is very strong, and those who think Japan might be our best choice of partner are marginalized. Abe's visit was positive, and good for both countries, but it doesn't look like it was a game changer."