Russian-Japanese relations over the past several weeks have had no similar lack of highlights and controversy. During Putin’s September 3-5 visit to Tokyo, differences between the two countries over the long-standing Kuril Islands dispute finally came to a head. Although both sides tried to downplay the importance of what appears to be a new impasse in their peace treaty negotiations, the Japanese side appeared piqued by Putin’s formal rejection of an earlier Japanese proposal that, in practical terms, called for redrawing the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion that would return the four disputed islands to Japanese sovereignty. Mori did get something of a commitment from Putin that the two sides would nevertheless step up the negotiations aimed finalizing a World War II peace treaty by the end of this year (as the two countries had pledged several years ago). But the impasse over the territorial dispute seemed likely to doom that effort to failure. Unexpectedly, however, Putin raised the possibility in Tokyo that Moscow might now be willing to cede two of the four disputed islands to Japan as a means of breaking the current deadlock. Whether the Japanese government will eventually warm to this proposal remains to be seen.
That Tokyo was unhappy with the summit talks was suggested only a few days after their conclusion when authorities arrested a Japanese officer on charges of providing classified information to the naval attache at the Russian embassy. The arrest received widespread media coverage in Japan, and passions there were further enflamed when Moscow refused Tokyo’s request to question the naval attache involved and instead hustled him very publicly out of the country. In Russia, meanwhile, the publicity accorded the spy row was characterized as an unfriendly act. Moscow observers attributed the incident to what they said was Japanese pique over Putin’s refusal to make concessions in the territorial dispute.
Although Russian-Japanese relations appeared to remain stable in other areas, Tokyo’s anger over Russian espionage activities in Japan were manifested in a Japanese decision to postpone a pair of high level military exchanges that were scheduled for late September. That decision was greeted with acrimony in Russia’s Defense Ministry, which warned that Tokyo would be held responsible for any downturn in relations between the two defense establishments. Russia’s foreign minister, meanwhile, called for Tokyo to take a more restrained approach to the spy wrangle and to ensure that it does not harm broader bilateral relations.