Photo/IllutrationForeign Minister Taro Kono, right, and visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hold a joint news conference in Tokyo on May 31. (Pool)

The Abe administration has abandoned its plan of reaching an agreement this month with Russia regarding a peace treaty to formally end World War II because of continuing differences over the Northern Territories issue.

It had initially hoped for an agreement in principle during the scheduled June 29 meeting in Osaka between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit meeting.

The two nations will continue negotiations toward a peace treaty, but the process is expected to be protracted.

When Abe and Putin do meet, the main goal will likely be to seek progress toward joint economic activities on the Northern Territories, a group of small islands off the coast of Hokkaido that were seized by the Soviet Union in the waning days of World War II.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono met with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Tokyo on May 31 for a fourth round of negotiations on the peace treaty, but no progress was made.

A number of government sources said that it was now impossible for an agreement to be hammered out on the territorial issue in time for the June meeting between Abe and Putin.

At a joint news conference after the meeting, Kono admitted the two sides were still far apart.

"On those issues where there was a difference of opinion, I clearly passed on Japan's position," he said. "The outline of the issues that will have to be overcome has become clearer."

Lavrov said that a greater frequency of negotiations does not necessarily mean the two sides had moved closer from their respective positions.

When Abe met with Putin in Singapore in November 2018, the two leaders agreed to accelerate peace treaty negotiations based on the 1956 Joint Declaration.

That represented a major shift for Abe from the long-held position that a peace treaty would only be signed after resolving who had sovereignty over the Northern Territories.

The 1956 Joint Declaration states that the Habomai islets and Shikotan island would first be returned to Japan once a peace treaty is signed.

Japanese officials had hoped that the major concession of only seeking the return first of two of the four islands would lead to a resolution of the issue.

There was the hope that if an agreement on a peace treaty could be reached by the time Putin visits Japan in June that would provide the Abe administration with diplomatic results that could boost the chances of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in this summer's Upper House election.

However, Russia has taken a hard-line stance since the first talks in January between Kono and Lavrov.

At the first meeting, Lavrov made clear that Japan would have to recognize Russia's sovereignty over the Northern Territories as a result of the outcome of World War II.

But that was clearly a position that Japan could never accept.

Russia subsequently raised concerns that if any of the Northern Territories were returned to Japan, the United States might construct military bases on those islands. Russian officials also said that the deployment in Japan of the land-based Aegis Ashore ballistic missile interception system represented a clear threat to Russia.

There are no plans for Kono and Lavrov to meet before the Abe-Putin meeting on June 29.

(This article was written by Ryosuke Ishibashi and Yuka Takeshita.)