President Vladimir Putin suggested Wednesday Russia and Japan sign a peace deal “without any preconditions” by the end of the year, a historic proposal to try to solve a territorial dispute after decades of deadlock.
Putin’s sudden proposal came just two days after he said that the two countries’ territorial dispute was unlikely to be settled soon.
The dispute between Russia and Japan centers on the four southernmost islands in the Kuril chain which the Soviet Union occupied at the end of World War II in 1945 but are claimed by Japan.
It has kept the two countries from signing a peace accord.
“We have been trying to solve the territorial dispute for 70 years. We’ve been holding talks for 70 years,” Putin said at an economic forum in the far eastern Russian city of Vladivostok attended by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
“Shinzo said: ‘let’s change our approaches.’ Let’s! Let’s conclude a peace agreement, not now but by year’s end without any preconditions,” Putin said, with the audience breaking into applause.
“It is not a joke,” Putin added, suggesting the two countries commit to solving the territorial dispute in the text of the agreement.
Putin said the conclusion of such a deal would create a better atmosphere and allow the two countries to “continue to solve all outstanding issues like friends.”
“It seems to me that this would facilitate the solution of all problems which we have not been able to solve during the past 70 years.”
The Japanese prime minister for his part said the two countries “have a duty to future generations.”
“Let us walk together mindful of the questions ‘If we don’t do it now, then when?’ And ‘if we don’t do it, then who will?’” Abe said, speaking before Putin. “We are both fully aware that it will not be easy.”
On Monday, Putin had seemed to pour cold water on suggestions that the dispute could be solved soon.
“It would be naive to think that it can be solved quickly,” Putin said after meeting Abe on the sidelines of the forum.
– ‘Putin trolls Abe’ –
But some diplomats said the proposal was a non-starter.
A former Russian deputy foreign minister, Georgy Kunadze, said he doubted that Putin wanted to solve the territorial problem in earnest.
“This is called trolling. Putin does not expect anything,” Kunadze told Echo of Moscow radio station.
He suggested Abe would never accept a deal that would be political suicide.
Putin and Abe have held numerous meetings over the past few years in a bid to solve the dispute over the islands known in Japan as the Northern Territories.
The two countries have launched various economic projects on the islands in areas such as the farming of fish and shellfish, wind-generated energy, and tourism.
Since last year, Tokyo and Moscow have also agreed on charter flights for Japanese former island inhabitants to visit family graves there.
Russian and Japanese foreign ministry officials said work on the future agreement would continue as usual.
“The government will continue its negotiations on the basic principle that we will sign a peace treaty after resolving the issue of the attribution of the Four Northern Islands,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.
“This stance hasn’t changed.”
In Moscow, deputy foreign minister Igor Morgulov told Russian news agencies that Putin’s announcement would not require any changes to the current format of negotiations.
The Kurils, which lie north of Japan’s Hokkaido island, have been controlled by Moscow since they were seized by Soviet troops in the dying days of World War II.
The four islands are known in Russian as Iturup, Shikotan, Habomai, and Kunashir.
Putin’s predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashir in 2010, becoming the first Russian leader to do so and provoking fury in Tokyo.