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International relations

US-Russia nuclear dispute raises obstacle in Japan island talks

Tokyo aims to deploy missile-defense system that Moscow calls a threat

President Putin claimed in a Feb. 20 speech that U.S. anti-missile systems had offensive capabilities, a charge that complicates Japan's talks with Moscow.   © AP

MOSCOW -- Tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Washington's withdrawal from a Cold War nuclear pact threaten to throw a wrench into Japan's efforts to sign a long-awaited postwar peace treaty with Moscow and settle their longtime island dispute.

The recent U.S. move to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, alleging violations by Moscow, drew sharp criticism from Russian President Vladimir Putin in his annual address to parliament last week.

Putin said Washington has "openly violated" the treaty, citing the installation in Europe of the Aegis Ashore missile defense systems that he claimed are also capable of launching medium-range cruise missiles. One missile defense site is operating in Romania, with another under construction in Poland.

Putin asserted that if such missiles are deployed to Europe, Moscow "will be forced to respond with mirror or asymmetric actions."

"We are ready to engage in disarmament talks, but we will not knock on a locked door anymore," he said.

This issue is having an impact negotiations between Russia and Japan toward signing a treaty and resolving a longstanding dispute over the southern Kuril Islands, which are administered by Moscow and claimed by Tokyo. Japan plans to buy Aegis Ashore systems from the U.S.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who leads Russia's negotiations with Japan, has repeatedly complained about the Aegis Ashore installations in Europe. This month, he explicitly tied the clash over the system to the island dispute.

"Certainly there is a link between the INF Treaty and the Kuril Islands," he said.

Moscow believes Washington scrapped the INF Treaty in order to fill the gaps in its short- and intermediate-range missile coverage in Asia, with an eye toward China. Russia refuses to accept the argument that the Aegis Ashore systems in Japan will be operated by Tokyo, and it worries that the U.S. military will deploy conventional intermediate-range missiles in the country.

Russia has increased its demands since Tokyo backed off a previous stance of settling the attribution of all four disputed islands before signing a peace treaty. Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed in November to pursue talks based on a 1956 joint declaration in which the Soviet Union agreed to transfer two islands -- Shikotan and the Habomai islets -- after a treaty was concluded.

Moscow wants Japan to acknowledge Russian sovereignty over the southern Kurils and pledge not to permit an American military presence on the islands even after the handover. The Soviet Union sought similar strategic concessions in a memorandum in 1960 -- after Tokyo signed a revised security treaty with Washington -- refusing to proceed with the transfer unless "all foreign troops are withdrawn from Japan."

Moscow's demands seem to be part of a strategy aimed at weakening U.S. relationships with its allies. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in January that the sanctions imposed by Japan alongside the U.S. and Europe in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine are "impeding very much the signing of a peace treaty."

Even as Lavrov and other Russian officials took a hard line with Japan, Putin played good cop to their bad cop in last week's speech, avoiding criticism of Tokyo from a strategic perspective.

"Russia stands ready to work with Japan on finding mutually acceptable terms for signing a peace treaty," he said.

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