Photo/IllutrationRussian President Vladimir Putin answers questions from reporters in his annual year-end news conference in Moscow on Dec. 20. (Ryosuke Ishibashi)

MOSCOW--Russian President Vladimir Putin on Dec. 20 cast doubts on Japan’s ability to reject establishment of U.S. military bases on islands off eastern Hokkaido if Russia were to return them to Japan.

“Now, about Japan’s ability to take part in this decision-making. To us, this is an unclear, closed issue. We do not understand the level of Japan’s sovereignty in making such decisions,” Putin said in his annual year-end news conference. “We do not know what will happen after the peace treaty is concluded (and the islands are returned). But without an answer to this question, it will be very difficult to make any crucial decisions.”

Putin made those remarks in response to questions from Kyodo News service on the islands and the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.

The islands, named Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu and collectively called the Northern Territories in Japan, were occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has told Putin that Japan would not allow the United States to establish military bases on the islands even if Russia returns them to Japan. Abe appears to have a “two islands first” strategy, which means seeking the return of the Habomai and Shikotan islands first and leaving the remaining two for future talks.

However, in the Dec. 20 news conference, Putin cited U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture as an example over which Japan has little authority.

“The Okinawa governor is opposed to some decisions related to improving and expanding the base," he said. "But he cannot do anything about it. There have been opinion polls and protests demanding the withdrawal of this base. (But) there are plans to improve and expand it, and it is happening despite the fact that everybody is against it.”

Putin apparently had in mind the controversial relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan, Okinawa Prefecture, to the Henoko district of Nago, also in the prefecture. Land reclamation work began recently in the sea off Henoko for the new base, despite fierce opposition from the current and previous Okinawa governors.

Putin also showed concern over the Japanese government’s plan to purchase the U.S.-made Aegis Ashore land-based ballistic missile defense system.

“We do not consider this to be defensive weapons. This is part of the U.S. strategic nuclear potential placed outside," he said.

However, he showed willingness to engage in negotiations with Japan to conclude a bilateral peace treaty.

Since 2001, Putin has held the annual year-end news conference in years when he was serving as the Russian president. This year, a record 1,702 reporters, including those from foreign media organizations, registered for the Dec. 20 session, which lasted three hours and 45 minutes.

Last year, Putin allotted much time to responding to questions from reporters from local areas of Russia, apparently because a Russian presidential election was scheduled for March 2018.

This year, however, he called on Japanese and Ukrainian reporters one after another even though less than an hour had passed since the start of the news conference.

Meanwhile, Japanese government officials announced on Dec. 20 that Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, will hold negotiations in Moscow on Jan. 14 to conclude a peace treaty.

Abe and Putin had agreed in their talks on Dec. 1 that they would designate Kono and Lavrov as the parties responsible for the peace treaty negotiations.