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Russia's aim to shake up Japan-U.S. relationship apparent at Abe-Putin summit

MOSCOW -- In December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and after decades of unilateral domination by the United States, the world right now is losing its balance. Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Japan, therefore, should be interpreted in the context of current world affairs -- turmoil in the Middle East, the rise of China and conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

Russia sees the unrest in the world as a result of self-righteous U.S. diplomacy. From the Iraq War that the U.S. started in 2003 to the 2004 "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine and the ensuing "Arab Spring," in Russia's perspective, it was the United States that destroyed world order by pushing democratization. Russia's claim has been disregarded, however, and Japan, the U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine crisis.

Nevertheless, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chose to move closer to Russia. President Putin's Dec. 16 visit to Tokyo was his first official trip to a capital of the Group of Seven major economies since the 2014 Ukraine crisis.

Putin's visit just so happens to come right before the change of the U.S. administration. While President-elect Donald Trump is believed to be relatively pro-Russia, his policies toward the country are yet to be seen. Russia, capitalizing on the period of transition in the United States, appears to be trying to draw Japan on its side, and that is why Putin is showing that he is enthusiastic about concluding a peace treaty with Japan.

Abe and Putin agreed on Dec. 16 that the two countries will launch negotiations over joint economic activities in the Russian-controlled Northern Territories. While this agreement resulted partly from what Abe calls a "future-oriented" approach, Putin did not yield at all over Russia's argument that the disputed islands became Russian territory as a result of World War II. For Putin, the victory in the war is a sacred and inviolable memory.

Russia has in recent years been calling for a peace treaty with Japan while shelving the territorial dispute. The Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration that both parties signed in 1956 states that Habomai and Shikotan islands would be handed over to Japan, but Russia now demands to negotiate conditions under which these islands would be transferred after concluding the peace treaty.

While an agreement over the northern islands is yet to be seen, the matter might become a wedge between Japan and the United States driven by Russia depending on how negotiations unfold.

Putin said before his trip to Japan that he would see how much Japan is willing to fulfill the accord agreed to by the two countries and how much it will be independent from the United States in making decisions. The two-party summit was, all in all, Russia's move to challenge Japan as well as the world. (Naoya Sugio, Moscow Bureau Chief)

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