Putin Seeks ‘Full Normalization’ of Japan Relations After Trump-Abe Meeting

LIMA, PERU - NOVEMBER 19, 2016: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands at a meeting on the sidelines of the 2016 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, at the Swissotel Lima. Mikhail Klimentyev/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images)
Mikhail Klimentyev\TASS via Getty Images

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is slated to meet his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe this week to discuss a 70-year-old territorial dispute and, hopefully, bring Japan closer into Russia’s orbit.

The meeting is set to occur shortly before U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who gave Abe the honor of being the first head of state to meet him personally following his election, assumes power in January.

Putin held a press conference Tuesday with Japanese reporters, bringing his Japanese Akita dog, Yume, along with him. Yume was a gift from the people of Japan following Russia’s help in recovery from the massive 2011 earthquake/tsunami that ravaged much of the island nation. Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik was quick to report that Yume, according to Putin, was “in great shape.”

Putin also discussed his desire to see “full normalization” of relations with Japan, a nation with which Russia remains technically at war. The two nations never signed a peace treaty following the end of World War II due to a dispute over ownership of Japan’s Northern Territories, four islands the Soviet Union seized at the end of the war.

“The absence of a peace treaty between Russia and Japan is an anachronism inherited from the past and this anachronism should be eliminated. But how to do this is a difficult question,” Putin told reporters, according to the Japan Times. He noted that, as Russia controls what it calls the Kuril Islands, “we believe we have no territorial problems at all.”

“It is only Japan that believes it has territorial problems with Russia,” he added, though he noted that Russia is “ready to talk about this” with Tokyo.

Putin will be the first Russian head of state to visit Japan in 11 years when he arrives at the resort summit with Abe on Thursday. The summit is intended to discuss the territorial dispute; both leaders hope to resolve the problem enough to end the war that technically continues between the two. The Japan Times notes that the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration states that Russia would give two of the islands back in the event of signing a peace treaty, but Japan insists that they all be returned to Japanese control.

Abe’s nationalist tenure, The Washington Post notes, has been particularly marked by the struggle to repatriate the Kuril Islands. On Monday, with the Putin meeting in sight, Abe vowed that he would “put an end to this issue in my generation” and “go into the summit with this determination.”

The Financial Times notes that public sentiment on the sparsely populated islands appears to differ by island. On Shikotan, the publication notes, some are so tired of Russian mismanagement that they would welcome repatriation to Japan. “Look at this rotten place. There are no proper jobs, no flats, no infrastructure. When the Japanese take over, at least there will be money,” a woman named Elvira tells the magazine. On other islands, however, many feel gratitude towards Moscow.

The summit follows a highly successful in-person meeting between Abe and President-elect Trump, who has begun a charm offensive against China, courting its most high-profile rivals on the international stage. Few are as concerning to China as Japan, particularly under the rule of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party. Abe has called for a constitutional amendment that would allow Japan to participate in “collective self-defense” — attacking enemies of its allies — and has visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial memorial to Japan’s war heroes that also honors World War II war criminals.

Leaving his meeting with Trump in New York, Abe told reporters he had “full confidence” in Trump, triggering a flurry of Chinese state-run propaganda outlet criticism. In courting China’s enemies, however, Trump has also begun to attract the support of Russia’s friends. Paramount on that list: Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines. While traditionally a staunch ally of the United States, the Philippines under Duterte has been belligerent towards President Obama, whom Duterte personally called a “son of a whore” on multiple occasions.

Following President-elect Trump’s election, Duterte seemed to reconsider his pivot away from Washington and towards Moscow. “I don’t want to fight because Trump is there,” he said last month. “We both curse. For any small reason, we curse. We are kind of similar.” While Duterte still refers to Putin as a “friend,” the change in tone may have inspired Russian diplomatic leaders to reach out to traditional U.S. allies like Japan in the hope of whittling away at the anti-China coalition Trump appears to be building.