NAGATO, YAMAGUCHI PREF. – Despite ongoing pressure on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday became the first Group of Seven leader to meet President Vladimir Putin, hoping to make a breakthrough in a postwar territorial row that has left the countries without a peace treaty.
Abe is an outlier among G-7 leaders, spending a good deal of political capital in efforts to forge a personal rapport with the Russian leader as part of wider hopes to settle the territorial dispute over four islands off Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — that were seized by the Soviets near the end of World War II.
Yet the prime minister’s omotenashi (hospitality), offering Putin a hot springs experience in Abe’s ancestral town of Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, was somewhat marred from the start when the Russian leader arrived almost two hours late. But Abe that said he was glad to welcome Putin to his hometown and that Putin will fully enjoy the onsen spa experience.
“I would like you to enjoy the local delicacies in the middle of beautiful nature and I would hope you take time to enjoy the onsen,” Abe said at the beginning of the summit. “I guarantee that you will feel revived after the talks because the onsen is known for it.”
Putin commended Abe by saying Japan-Russia relations have moved forward under the stewardship of Abe.
“My colleagues and I have hopes that the summit talks today and tomorrow will contribute greatly to the bilateral relations,” Putin said, adding that he was looking forward to the onsen. “But of course it’s better not to be so tired.”
A subsequent working dinner also was held in an amicable atmosphere, with Putin raising a toast to Abe’s strong power base. Putin even joked he would bring Yume, his Akita dog gifted by the Akita governor in return for Putin’s support after the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, if the opposition camp submits a nonconfidence motion again. Abe survived the motion early Thursday by a large margin before he met with Putin.
Despite the friendly, yet cosmetic, comments, the onsen rapprochement was expected to bring lackluster results toward peace treaty negotiations. Sources have said there would not be a joint statement — nor a major achievement — over the territorial row.
The unsubstantial comments by both sides also underscored their differences over the territorial row remain wide and unlikely to be overcome by a dip in a hot bath.
After the first three-hour meeting, Abe told reporters that he had a one-on-one talk with Putin for about 95 minutes, specifically to talk about the peace treaty issues. That included possible joint economic activities on the four islands under a special framework established by the two countries.
He also said he handed over a letter from former residents of the islands and Putin read one of the letters written in Russian.
“The average age of the former residents is 81. I had talks with Putin, bearing in mind that we are running out of time,” Abe told reporters.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the two leaders didn’t hold any discussions over the sovereignty of the islands, according TASS news service.
Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov, who attended the talks, meanwhile said the joint economic activities include fishing, mariculture, tourism, medicine and ecology that he said will be conducted under the Russian legal system, according to TASS.
Yet a high-ranking Japanese government official said joint economic activities should not infringe on Japan’s legal system, highlighting the fundamental differences.
TASS also quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as saying the leaders had agreed the two nations will resume a “two-plus-two” meeting involving their foreign and defense ministers. But Tokyo denied this was the case.
Abe didn’t discuss in detail the contents of their talks, but he said the two leaders will hold a joint news conference on Friday to unveil what’s been covered.
Putin already made waves in Japan by saying there is no territorial dispute only two days before his visit, in an interview with the Yomiuri Shimbun and Nippon TV. He also criticized Japan’s sanctions, together with the Western world, against Russia as a clear hindrance for the peace treaty negotiations.
For Putin, lifting sanctions imposed after it annexed Crimea is crucial for the country’s teetering economy, which is expected to contract 0.8 percent in 2016, together with plunging oil prices.
Yet the sanctions by Japan are much less severe compared with other countries. For one, Japan’s sanctions don’t touch Russia’s money-churning energy sector, while the U.S. has tightened funding and loan restrictions for Russian state banks and corporations, including energy companies.
While building trust with Putin, Abe has to engage in a delicate diplomatic balancing act as a representative of the G-7 countries. In a move that may be designed to soothe Putin’s frustration while saving face as a G-7 leader, Japan is expected to offer low-hanging fruit by relaxing visa requirements for Russians and expanding visas, or increasing free visits, to the four contested islands.But the move would be a de facto first lifting of sanctions by a G-7 country, potentially driving a wedge in the group’s joint policy. Japan halted bilateral talks about the visas as part of the sanctions.
Tokyo said the Crimea issue and its own territorial dispute are two different matters, despite the structural similarity, while emphasizing that both Russia and Ukraine have to observe the Minsk II cease-fire agreement.
A high-ranking foreign ministry official said that visa changes would be “a unilateral decision” by the Japanese government that would not involve negotiations with Russia or violate sanctions.
More disconcerting for Abe is U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s apparent affinity with Putin. Trump has appointed ExxonMobil chief Rex Tillerson, who has close ties with the Russian leader, to be the secretary of state in his administration, despite a growing number of Republican senators opposing the move due to Tillerson’s Russia ties.
Some experts say that better U.S.-Russia relations would be helpful for Japan’s own relations with Russia.
President Barack Obama was reportedly unhappy about Abe’s effort to cozy up to Putin.
But at the same time, some have said that Japan’s strategic importance for Russia, now the only supportive country within the G-7, will relatively diminish.
Information from Kyodo added