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Putin’s curveball on northern isles issue rattles government

Tsuyoshi Yoshioka / The Yomiuri Shimbun

From left, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Wednesday afternoon.

The Yomiuri ShimbunVLADIVOSTOK, Russia — The Japanese government was caught off-guard by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden proposal that Japan and Russia sign a peace treaty without preconditions, a curveball that could complicate negotiations between the two nations on the northern territories issue.

The government, which intends to use diplomatic channels to confirm the real intention behind Putin’s suggestion, is concerned that concluding a peace treaty without resolving the return of four islands off Hokkaido could effectively relegate the northern territories issue to the sidelines.

Putin made the proposal during the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on Wednesday.

The Japanese government’s position is that it will sign a peace treaty with Russia after resolving the issue.

At a press conference Wednesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga insisted the government’s position “remains unchanged.”

The 2001 Irkutsk Statement signed by then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Putin also mentions that both nations will conclude “a peace treaty through the solution of issues concerning” the northern territories.

“This proposal differs from Russia’s previous position and raises hurdles in resolving the northern territories issue,” a Foreign Ministry source said. “It’s a curveball that will disrupt the negotiations.”

Against a backdrop of lingering tension in the U.S.-Russia relationship, Putin is wary of U.S. military forces possibly being stationed on the islands after they are returned to Japan.

According to a source who is well-informed about Japan-Russia ties, Putin is “becoming reluctant” to settle the northern territories issue.

Furthermore, Putin has repeatedly indicated he places importance on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which stated the islands of Habomai and Shikotan would be handed over to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty. The widespread view among analysts is that Putin will not return all four islands at once.

Consequently, some Japanese government officials believe the return of Habomai and Shikotan first, followed by continued negotiations for the return of Etorofu and Kunashiri after a peace treaty is concluded, would be a “realistic” approach.

However, one government source shot down Putin’s latest proposal, saying, “A peace treaty without preconditions is absolutely impossible.”

In a speech at the forum Wednesday, Abe urged Putin to make progress on the issue.

“Japan and Russia are not at the point where both nations can conclude a peace treaty,” Abe said. “I’d like to move forward while asking President Putin, ‘If not now, when?’ and ‘If we don’t do it, who will?’”

Abe did not respond to requests from reporters for comment on Putin’s proposal.

If Putin appears determined to stick to his proposal, Abe will likely be left with few good cards left to play.Speech

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