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Putin sends Abe frosty signal via Medvedev's island visit

Russian president appears to no longer regard Japan as a diplomatic priority

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has Putin's back on the issue of the Kuril Islands.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited one of the four Russian-held, Japanese-claimed islands off Hokkaido in early August despite Tokyo's request that he cancel the trip.

Medvedev last visited the island, called Etorofu in Japan, in August 2015. Before that, he visited Kunashiri -- another of the four islands -- as president in November 2010, becoming the first Russian or Soviet head of state to set foot on the disputed islands.

The No. 2 man in Russia's hierarchy behind President Vladimir Putin, Medvedev is regarded as a hard-liner on Japan, making his visit to Etorofu significant.

The islands are part of what Russia calls the Southern Kurils. When Medvedev visited Etorofu four years ago, he said, "The Kurils are part of Russia and belong to the state of Sakhalin, which is a constituent entity of the [Russian] Federation. We have visited, are visiting and will continue to visit here."

Medvedev's recent Etorofu foray showed that he has not forgotten his vow. In all, he has made four trips to the islands.

When he first visited the islands, residents were living under appalling conditions. But now, "roads are being paved and new houses, schools and modern businesses are under construction," Medvedev was quoted as saying.

The prime minister visited a seafood processing plant, a hot-spring, a school and housing construction sites on his latest trip.

Asked if he was worried about Japan's reaction, Medvedev was quoted as saying: "Why do we need to worry? This land is ours. The more furious Japan becomes, the more often we will visit here and the more encouraged we will be to introduce more measures to address problems here."

Despite his somewhat liberal reputation, Medvedev is regarded as a Japanophobe. During a trip to Kunashiri as prime minister in July 2012, he called the island "an integral part of Russia" and said that Moscow "would not concede an inch of it."

Medvedev has made four visits to the Kuril Islands, and is not worried about making Japan furious.   © Reuters

Putin has never visited the islands, which has led some observers in Japan to conclude that Medvedev's latest visit is not a matter of concern.

Since 2000, Putin has maintained a strong grip on power in Russia, even while Medvedev was president from 2008 to 2012. It is unlikely that Medvedev -- Putin's loyal lieutenant -- would visit the islands without the president's consent. In fact, Putin may have used the trip to send Japan a message.

When Medvedev visited Kunashiri in 2010 and again in 2012, Japan was governed by the Democratic Party of Japan, and ties with Russia were strained. But his two visits to Etorofu have come while the Liberal Democratic Party and its junior partner, Komeito, have been in power.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to office in 2012 determined to settle the issue of the Northern Territories -- Japan's term for the islands -- and conclude a postwar peace treaty with Russia. He met Putin in Moscow in April 2013, then again in February 2014 at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

But later in February Russia seized the Crimea from Ukraine, then shocked the international community the next month by declaring it had annexed the peninsula.

Japan, along with the other Group of Seven industrial countries, then imposed sanctions.

Russia's move stymied Abe's outreach to Putin, who accused Japan of being a lap dog of the Americans. Tokyo, however, believed that planned bilateral talks were unaffected by the Ukraine issue and expected Putin to visit Japan as agreed.

Amid the hubbub, Medvedev in August 2015 made his first trip to Etorofu, which delayed Putin's visit. Overnight, Russia had dashed Japan's hopes for the president's visit.

Abe and Putin did not put the island negotiations back on the agenda until May 2016, when the Japanese prime minister again visited Sochi. Abe proposed an eight-point plan for bilateral cooperation in areas such as health care and energy, and called for accelerating peace treaty negotiations based on a "new idea." He also proposed joint "economic activities" on the islands, a strategy Tokyo had previously shunned for fear that this would amount to tacit acknowledgement of Russia's control over them.

Putin visited Japan in December of that year. At a meeting in Yamaguchi Prefecture, both leaders agreed to begin talks on joint economic activities on the islands, with an eye toward paving the way for a peace treaty.

When talks hit a snag over legal questions and the movement of people, Abe proposed basing negotiations on a 1956 joint declaration between Japan and the Soviet Union, which Putin accepted as valid.

The declaration mentions the return of Shikotan and the Habomai islets to Japan after a peace treaty is signed, but makes no reference to the other two islands.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, is in no hurry to make a deal over the disputed islands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.   © Reuters

Given that this departed from Japan's long-held position that all the islands be returned, Abe had hoped that Putin would take a bold political step and accept the deal.

But Putin refused to budge. Without rejecting the deal outright, the president set forth preconditions -- including historical issues and demands over the Japan-U.S. security treaty -- before he would agree to its terms.

The impasse remained, and talks between Abe and Putin in June on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka went nowhere.

Still Abe presses on, hoping to persuade Putin to sign a peace treaty. He plans to attend the Eastern Economic Forum again this year, which will be held in the Russian city of Vladivostok in September, with Putin in attendance.

For his part, the Russian leader may have other things on his mind. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to be the guest of honor at this year's forum.

Meanwhile, relations between the U.S. and Europe are starting to fray over issues such as the U.S.-China trade war, American demands that its NATO allies spend more money on defense, and the Trump administration's decision to pull out of the Iranian nuclear deal.

The friction has helped bring Russia in from the cold compared to where it stood after it annexed the Crimea. Russia welcomes Abe's overtures, but the Japanese have become less useful to Moscow's strategy than before.

Japan is simply not a diplomatic priority for Russia these days.

During a private meeting with Russian business leaders in March, Putin declared that the "tempo has been lost" for a peace treaty with Japan, the Russian daily Kommersant reported.

Referring to the Japan-U.S. security treaty and opposition to the return of the disputed islands to Japan among most of Russian residents there, Putin said, "We need to take a breather, although a breakdown in [bilateral] relations should be avoided," the newspaper quoted the president as saying.

Through Medvedev's second visit to Etorofu, Putin appears to have sent Japan a signal that the two countries should set the territorial issue aside for now, although he wants to keep talking.

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