Strongman Putin seeks solace in Japan

[:en]n-abeputin-a-20161216-870x625The Russian President Vladimir Putin flew into Japan on Thursday, the day he was pronounced the most powerful man in the world by Forbes.

His first stop was Nagato, the hometown of the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, where he stayed in a luxurious onsen spa resort. Mr Abe said he hoped the spa would refresh his guest as they prepared for two days of talks.

The aim is to settle a dispute between Japan and Russia over the Kuril islands, which lie to the north of Hokkaido.

Russia has claimed them as its territory since the end of the Second World War. Japan calls the islands its Northern Territories and would like them returned to its sovereignty.

The Japan trip enables Mr Putin to side step the intense criticism of Russia’s recent actions in Syria and its annexation of Ukraine in 2014, which resulted in international sanctions.

Russian support for the assault on the Syrian city of Aleppo, in which many civilians died, led Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN to angrily ask: “Is there nothing that shames you?”

President Obama has said the United States must and will retaliate Russia for hacking which he believes was designed to interfere in the American election.

The White House has said a cyber attack would not have happened without Preisdent Putin’s personal knowledge.

Russia has dismissed the claims and hopes for a warmer relationship with the US follow the inauguration of President-elect Trump, who has said Mr Putin is someone he can do business with.

Mr Putin, too, has spoken of his desire to befriend the leaders of previously hostile foreign countries. Russia and Japan warred twice in the 20th Century but Mr Abe and Mr Putin have enjoyed a cordial diplomatic relationship and have met more than 15 times.

This week’s meeting represents “a rare opportunity for Japan and Russia to normalise bilateral relations and finally leave behind the legacy of the Second World War,” according to Yoichi Funibashi, founder of the Rebuild Japan think tank, who wrote an opinion piece for the Financial Times.

Mr Funibashi also cautioned Japan not to become an ally of Russia or to abandon its duty of “shoring up the liberal international order.”

The newly launched website of the Japanese conservative newspaper, the Sankei Shimbun called Japan Forward carries extensive analysis of the Japan-Russian relationship.

Its contributors include Ilya Lozovsky who says he would welcome any deal over the islands which would benefit both Russia and Japan.

But Mr Lozovsky is scathing of Mr Putin, saying that although he may be “a tactical mastermind… strategically speaking, Putin has been a failure, having led his country for 16 years down a corridor that is gradually narrowing and darkening.”

That dark view of Mr Putin is rare in Russia, where most people watch state-controlled media. The President’s approval rating at home jumped from 81% in June to 86% in November, according to a Moscow-based research centre. 

Mr Abe appreciates the conversations about the islands will be complicated. He told reporters the discussions will probably stretch into the night.

He may also be wary of an unequal balance of power with the visiting Russian strongman. While Forbes says Mr Putin stands tall as the most powerful man in the world, Mr Abe ranks at a lowly number 37 on its list.

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