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At Russia-Japan summit, end to WWII may not be in play – but a thaw might

How others see it

Expectations have grown that Putin and Abe might formally end World War II between Russia and Japan during their meeting this week, but the Kremlin now says that is unlikely. Still, Russians see great opportunity to be had.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (l.) and Russian President Vladimir Putin come down on the escalator after their talks in Vladivostok, Russia, in September. Expectations are high that Mr. Putin and Mr. Abe could make progress in the dispute over the Russian-held islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the southern Kurils in Russia, in their upcoming summit in Japan Thursday and Friday.

Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/Pool/AP/File

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The Kremlin is furiously tamping down expectations for the unusual summit meeting between President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, set to begin Thursday at a hot springs resort near Mr. Abe's home town of Nagato.

That's not surprising, since the hopes that have been aroused are nothing short of breathtaking.

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Many experts believe that, for the first time since at least 1956, there could be an opportunity to formally end World War II between Russia and Japan, solve a long-running territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands, and through that new political relationship finally unlock a flood of Japanese investment into Russia's undeveloped far eastern region.

This will be the second meeting between Mr. Putin and the Japanese prime minister this year, and Putin's first visit to a Group of Seven nation since top Western powers and Japan slapped sanctions on Russia over the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The sense that something extraordinary might be in the air was boosted this week by reports in the Japanese media that the US had repeatedly urged Abe not to meet with Putin, but the objections had been "brushed off" by Tokyo.

"People are seeing this meeting as a possible breakthrough, but we see it as the beginning of an important new process," says Sergei Markov, a past adviser to Putin. "Japan seems willing to change its direction and renew its relations with Moscow and we welcome that. But solving the territorial issue is not a simple matter; it might take decades."

A Russia-Japan 'reset'?

The nub of the dispute is four tiny islands off the northern tip of Japan that the USSR seized and annexed in the closing days of World War II. Russia refers to them as the "southern Kurils" while Japanese call them their "northern territories." Though the two restored diplomatic ties long ago, the spat has prevented the conclusion of a formal peace treaty and has been cited by successive Japanese governments as a reason not to enter into major economic cooperation with Russia.

The outlines of a compromise were reached in 1956, under which the then-Soviet government would relinquish the two southernmost islands in return for a peace treaty and normalization of relations with Japan. That deal was reportedly scuttled by pressure from Washington, which threatened to keep control over Okinawa if Japan went ahead with the exchange. After that the dispute hardened, and has become a staple rallying cry for nationalists in both Russia and Japan.

Japan and Russia dispute ownership of the Kuril Islands, or Northern Territories, which have been in Russian hands since 1945.
Jake Turcotte/The Christian Science Monitor

"What is new and different right now is that Abe has reversed the policy of previous Japanese governments, and allowed that economic cooperation could come before a resolution of the territorial dispute," says Alexander Gabuev, resident Asia expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "For Abe, whose previous attempt to forge an opening with Russia was derailed [when the West imposed sanctions against Russia after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine], it's really important to use this window of opportunity now that the Obama administration in Washington is on its way out, to get some progress. Who knows what the new Trump administration will do? Its ideas about the changing Asia Pacific do not seem worked-out at all.

"For Putin it's a chance to demonstrate, by courting a G-7 country, that Russia is not isolated. This visit will send a strong message, not only to the West but also to China, that Moscow has other options," he adds.

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Japan may also be using the situation to send its own signal to China, which has enjoyed a fast-growing relationship with Russia amid the recent East-West tensions, that Moscow's allegiance cannot be taken for granted.

"Relations between Tokyo and Beijing are very tense these days. Japan basically tries to go everywhere that China goes – Africa, Latin America – to try and counter Chinese influence," says Mr. Gabuev. "The growing closeness between Russia and China is of the utmost concern to the Japanese, so there is an obvious effort under way to offset that."

A hard path

Even if the spigot opens and Japanese investment is freed to invest in Russia, the potential is hard to gauge.

The Russian media is heralding more than 60 intergovernmental and commercial agreements set to be signed during the visit. But most of those appear to be "memorandums of understanding" – vague commitments to do something in future rather than finished plans. And it's hard to see how Russia's far east, with its difficult investment climate and scanty infrastructure, could rapidly absorb any big inflow of capital.

Nevertheless, most experts say the core issues of territorial compromise and a peace treaty will at least be placed back on the agenda, even if only in the form of a "face-saving declaration" at the end of this week's summit.

Public opinion in Russia is solidly opposed to exchanging any Kuril islands for a peace treaty with Japan, a view expressed by 78 percent of Russians in an August poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow. Polls suggest Japanese public opinion is more open to a deal, but that growing numbers expect Russia to return all four Kuril islands rather than just the two Moscow would be willing to discuss.

"Don't wait for any breakthroughs at this summit, but it's definitely a very interesting moment" amid a rapidly changing world picture, says Sergei Karaganov, a senior Moscow foreign policy expert. "Putin is at the height of his power and popularity, and he has a lot of political capital to spend. Russia is returning to Asia, and improving relations with Japan are certainly on the agenda. Maybe no big surprises will emerge, but some kind of movement for sure."