President Vladimir Putin will hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in a rare bilateral meeting with a Group of Seven leader, marking a breakthrough in Kremlin efforts to end Russia’s isolation since it intervened in Ukraine more than two years ago.
Abe, who is due to meet with Putin on Friday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, has argued for engagement with the Russian leader to further Japan’s goal of ending a World War II territorial dispute, as well as in tackling issues such as Syria. Russia played down expectations of serious progress in resolving the dispute over ownership of a chain of islands, even as officials sought to make political capital out of Abe’s decision to visit.
“This is yet another indication that Obama’s policy of isolation has failed,” Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian lower house of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said by phone. “It’s an important visit that shows that Japan has decided not to put all its eggs in one basket.”
The Japanese leader, a key American ally in the Asia-Pacific region, rejected an appeal by President Barack Obama not to go ahead with the visit to Russia, the Kyodo news service reported Feb. 24. Russia is seeking to improve foreign ties. Abe’s trip will be followed by that of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi next month to a showcase annual investment forum in Putin’s home city of St. Petersburg. Russia’s economy is enduring its longest recession in two decades provoked by the collapse in oil prices and international sanctions over its role in the Ukrainian crisis.
Japan hosts the annual G-7 summit later this month. The U.S. considers that “continued unity” among its partners is vital in the approach to Russia, State Department spokesman Noel Clay said by e-mail. “Our relationship with Russia cannot be ‘business as usual’ as long as Russia continues to violate international law in Ukraine.”
The governments in Tokyo and Moscow have yet to sign a peace treaty for World War II after Soviet troops seized four islands, called the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, in the dying days of the conflict. While Japan has demanded the return of the islands, Russia has offered to give back only two of them.
The fact that Japan is seeking to maintain relations with Russia, despite U.S. pressure, will allow the two sides to tackle “all the different problems,” Putin said last month.
Putin will propose new cooperation in trade, finance and the economy at the meeting, according to the Kremlin. The dispute over the islands will be raised though it’s a “difficult” issue that requires a much closer partnership, presidential foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters Thursday. The premier’s visit will give a “new impetus” to ties, he said.
Abe will lay out a plan for eight areas of cooperation to boost the Russian economy, including energy and industrial development in Russia’s far east, Japanese state broadcaster NHK reported.
In 2013, Abe was the first Japanese leader to make an official visit to Russia in a decade, seeking to resolve differences and expand energy supplies. Relations grew strained shortly after he visited the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, when Japan joined the U.S. and the European Union in penalizing Russia for annexing Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and supporting separatists in its former Soviet neighbor’s east.
“This is the worst possible time for going soft on Russia,” said James Brown, an associate professor at Temple University in Tokyo, who published a book on the territorial dispute in March. “Abe is taking a very big risk because other G-7 members have made it very clear they don’t think it’s a very good idea, including Obama on a phone call.”
Japan doesn’t have the luxury of shunning Russia as its key regional neighbors China and South Korea view it with deep suspicion, according to Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. While Abe isn’t naïve enough to believe there’ll be a speedy resolution of the territorial dispute, he’s willing to promote Japanese investments and loans in Russia to reduce China’s role, Baunov said.
“Japan is a country that is friendless in its own backyard, so ties with Russia are very important for it,” he said.