Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a new interview with Bloomberg News, was asked about the issue of the long-standing dispute between his country and Japan over the Kuril Islands–a series of small islets off the northern coast of Hokkaido, running up to the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula. Putin seemingly opened the door to a compromise with Tokyo on the dispute. “We’re not talking about some exchange or some sale,” he said. “We are talking about finding a solution where neither of the parties would feel defeated or a loser.”
Putin began by saying that there will be no trading of territories with Japan, but that Russia “would very much like to find a solution to this problem with our Japanese friends.” The Russian president also cautioned that compromise would likely have to be built on the back of trust; if Moscow “can reach a similarly high level of trust” with Tokyo “then we can find some sort of compromise.”
Are Putin’s latest comments a serious expression of diplomatic interest or a fleeting moment of optimism? After all, in the past two years, the prospects of a resolution to the long-standing Kuril Islands dispute–and Russia-Japan relations more generally–have ebbed and flowed. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, expressed an interest in pursuing closer relations with Moscow after returning to office in 2012. However, his early overtures, while reciprocated by Russia, were derailed by Tokyo’s alignment with the West in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and ensuing support for separatists in Ukraine. Tokyo, somewhat reluctantly, stood lockstep with the G7 powers against Russia and backed international sanctions.
On the Japanese side, interest in cooperation with Russia has far from evaporated. In fact, a day before Putin’s comments to Bloomberg became public, Abe established a new cabinet-level post for Hiroshige Seko, the minister of economy, trade, and industry, focused on economic cooperation with Russia. The post is meant to carry forward momentum from a brief and informal meeting between Abe and Putin earlier this year in Sochi, on Russia’s Black Sea coast. Abe’s current play with Putin is to position Japan as an enabler for Russian economic dynamism in the country’s far east. Tokyo appears to be betting that economic cooperation can build the sort of trust that Putin alluded to in his comments to Bloomberg.
There’ll be some indicators on whether we’re due for another period of bilateral warmth between Tokyo and Moscow. First of all, keep an eye out for the upcoming Abe-Putin meeting at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, which kicked off on Friday. The two leaders will be able to follow up on their deliberations in Vladivostok a few months down the line at the 2016 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which will be held in Peru this year.
Finally, Russian military behavior in Japan’s airspace and nearby waters is a good indicator of Moscow’s feelings toward Tokyo. Russia regularly flies Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers around Japanese airspace, causing Japan’s Air Self Defense Force to scramble in response. (Moscow kicked off the year by having two Tu-95s circumnavigate Japan’s main islands.) Similarly, with tensions high in the East China Sea, any Russian involvement alongside Chinese Navy or Coast Guard vessels could be telling. (When a Chinese Navy frigate sailed into the contiguous zone around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands earlier this summer for the first time, it was flanked by Russian naval vessels.)
Overall, the bilateral situation between the two countries remains precarious, but could be turning around. Putin’s comments and Abe’s determination to operationalize an “Eastern” strategy of sorts to build trust with Moscow might just restore the bonhomie that seemed to exist between the two countries in 2013, when the prospects for a resolution of the 71-year old Kuril Islands dispute appeared bright.