Photo/IllutrationPrime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on May 26 (Takeshi Iwashita)

It is time for Japan to review its forward-leaning stance in its talks with Russia.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, their first summit since Putin won his fourth presidential term in March.

Not even a hint has been found, however, to a prospective settlement of the longstanding bilateral dispute over the Northern Territories.

“Joint economic activities” on the four islands off Hokkaido, which were seized by the Soviet Union during the closing days of World War II and are claimed by Tokyo, represented the centerpiece of an agreement reached by the two leaders in 2016.

This time around, Abe and Putin agreed on sending a private-sector research mission to the islands.

While Tokyo is hoping the joint activities will serve as a springboard for pulling the four islands closer to Japan, Moscow has not backed down on its stance that Russian law should be applied there. The development of a legal framework for allowing the activities to take place is still expected to face rough going.

Japanese officials were hoping that Putin could commit himself squarely to the territorial issue once the presidential election was over.

Immediately before the latest talks, however, the Kremlin argued that a future peace treaty to be signed by both countries should clearly state the recognition that the northern islands legally became part of the Soviet Union as a result of World War II.

Behind Russia’s intransigence on the issue are the country’s souring ties with the United States. The armed forces of Russia have been deploying ground-to-ship missiles on Kunashiri and Etorofu islands, part of the Northern Territories, which Moscow sees as strategic footholds for the defense of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Putin has repeatedly expressed concerns in recent years about the Japan-U.S. alliance. He is obviously not in a position to make concessions to Japan in the near future on the territorial dispute.

The government of Japan, for its part, has argued that Russia’s annexation of Crimea four years ago amounts to an unacceptable attempt to “change the status quo with force.” It has imposed sanctions on Russia in step with other members of the Group of Seven.

That notwithstanding, the Abe administration created a new post of a “minister for economic cooperation with Russia” in 2016, hopefully as a springboard for Putin’s Japan visit, which took place late that year.

Japan is, in fact, imposing sanctions on, and promoting bold economic partnership with, one and the same country. The inconsistency of that policy has ended up both exposing Japan to suspicious eyes of Western nations and allowing Moscow to exploit Tokyo’s weaknesses.

Russia holds a major clout on the Asia-Pacific region, including the Korean Peninsula. A need for dialogue and trust-building with Putin is well understandable.

That said, there is an intrinsic limit to relationship-building efforts as long as Japan’s basic stance consists in pleading for concessions on the territorial dispute. Talks should instead be held in such a manner that Japan takes a firm stance in the face of Russia’s behavior in foreign relations, which often disrupts the international order, while at the same time reassigning a place to the territorial issue in the context of regional peace and stability.

Spreading the illusion that advancing joint economic activities alone would help settle the territorial issue will only narrow the range of options for the talks.

Abe has reiterated that he and Putin will put an end to the bilateral dispute. It would, however, be too risky for him to hastily seek a breakthrough, eager to do so by any means while he is prime minister.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 28