MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Tuesday dashed Japanese hopes of a settlement any time soon to a territorial dispute that has festered since 1945, declaring after a meeting with the visiting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan that there was still much “painstaking work” ahead.
In his remarks to reporters, Mr. Putin gave no sign that Russia might accede to Tokyo’s demand that it relinquish Japanese islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. He said that any agreement must have support from the public, which in Russia, according to a November opinion poll, is strongly opposed to returning any islands to Japan.
Mr. Abe, whose father, Shintaro Abe, spent years trying in vain to settle the territorial dispute with Russia while serving as Japan’s foreign minister, has made improving relations with Moscow a priority. But he, too, conceded on Tuesday that “resolving a problem left unresolved for over 70 years since the end of the war is not easy.”
Mr. Putin had previously raised Japanese hopes of reclaiming at least a small portion of what it calls its “Northern Territories” and what Russians refer to as the Southern Kuriles, a chain of islands off Japan’s northern prefecture of Hokkaido.
But any settlement involving the surrender of territory would collide with the central pillars of Russia’s state ideology under Mr. Putin: a commitment to rebuilding Russia as a great power, ceaseless celebration of Moscow’s victory in the war, and rejection of anything that might challenge the outcome of that conflict.
Mr. Putin, who has met with Mr. Abe four times in the past six months, has spoken frequently of his desire to attract more Japanese investment, particularly to bolster the flagging economic fortunes of deprived areas of the Russian Far East.
A deal over the Kurile Islands with Japan, which would allow the two countries to finally sign a peace treaty formally ending World War II, would also give Russia other large potential benefits, not least the possibility that Japan, a close ally of the United States, would be more receptive to Moscow’s views on issues like missile defense.
The tension between Mr. Putin’s apparent desire for a deal with Japan and his role as a pugnacious champion of Russia’s national interests highlights how the nationalist passions he unleashed with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 now limit his room to maneuver.
While closely allied with the United States, Japan has been far less critical of Moscow than have Europe and America, and Mr. Putin has forged a close relationship with Mr. Abe. The two have met 25 times and the Russian leader has praised Mr. Abe as a “friend,” a term he rarely uses for Western leaders.
Takeshi Osuga, a spokesman for the Japanese prime minister’s delegation in Moscow, told reporters late Tuesday that the fate of the Kurile Islands had been discussed during talks lasting nearly three hours in the Kremlin, but he declined to say whether Mr. Putin had accepted the possibility of returning territory.
The prospect that Russia might return two small islands to Japan has outraged hard-line Russian nationalists, who gathered in Moscow on Sunday to curse Mr. Putin and demand that Moscow hang on to all its territorial gains from 1945.
“World War II is sacred. The view is that if we got something as a result of the war we can’t give it up because that would only undermine the greatness of our victory,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, the director of the Sova Center, a Moscow research group that monitors Russian nationalist groups.
Hard-line nationalists, emboldened by the seizure of Crimea but embittered by Mr. Putin’s reluctance to grab more territory from Ukraine, have scant popular support. But they still present a potential danger for the Kremlin at a time of growing economic hardship and widespread public anger over the overhaul of Russia’s pension system.
“Putin unleashed so many nationalist forces after Crimea he needs to be careful,” said Alexander Gabuev, an Asia expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “His hands are really bound by nationalist sentiment and the fact that his ratings are going down.”
The Kremlin has responded to criticism from extreme nationalists with a mix of repression, jailing their most vocal and disruptive leaders, and tacit support.
The police on Tuesday arrested several protesters who gathered outside the Japanese Embassy to protest any return of the islands. But the Russian authorities, who usually crack down on opponents of Mr. Putin, allowed a demonstration in central Moscow on Sunday by hundreds of nationalists and far-left activists united in hostility to any deal with Japan and also to Mr. Putin, whom they view as insufficiently robust in his defense of Russian interests.
Among those speaking at the protest rally was Igor Girkin, a former military intelligence officer who helped ignite the Russian-backed separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Now back in Russia, Mr. Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, commands a small but noisy following of self-declared patriots committed to expanding Russian territory and resisting, by force if necessary, any accommodation with the West.
“I will say just one thing. If the authorities decide, against the will of the overwhelming majority of the people, to hand over to the Japanese two, one, even a piece of the Kurile Islands, we will not stop at any action, lawful or unlawful,” he told flag-waving protesters. A group of demonstrators from the Left Front, whose red flag features a hand grenade, held up a large banner declaring Hokkaido, an integral part of Japanese territory, a “Russian island.”
The Soviet Union seized the Kurile Islands, some of which lie just a few miles from Hokkaido, in August 1945. After expelling Japanese residents, the Soviet Union incorporated the remote, mostly barren islands into Russia’s Sakhalin region. Moscow and Tokyo agreed in 1956 to put an end to their wartime hostility and that two small parts of the territory near Hokkaido — Habomai and Shikotan — would be handed back to Japan after the signing of a formal peace treaty.
The treaty, however, was never signed, leaving Russia in control of all the islands. Hopes of a breakthrough rose last year when Mr. Putin announced in Vladivostok that the two countries should sign a peace treaty by the end of 2018. Mr. Abe, after a November meeting with Mr. Putin in Singapore, told reporters that he and the Russian leader had revived peace talks based on the 1956 agreement, suggesting that Moscow might give up two islands.
Mr. Gabuev, the Moscow-based Asia expert, said that Mr. Putin had simply been “toying” with Mr. Abe, raising hopes of an agreement in an effort to sow discord between Japan and the United States.
Analysts in Tokyo, however, said that a deal might make sense, in the current geopolitical environment, for both nations.
“It’s a kind of a compromise solution for the Japanese side,” said Nobuo Shimotomai, a specialist in Russian-Japanese relations at Hosei University in Tokyo. But with the rising power of China, he said, and a new Cold War between China and the United States, “Japan and Moscow have good reason to have a kind of counterweighting relationship with regard to other great powers.”
Orignially published in NYT.