Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told Russian President on Tuesday he is eager to “put an end” to a territorial dispute that has kept their countries from signing a postwar peace treaty, in their first phone talks since the Japanese leader took office earlier this month.

Speaking to reporters after the conversation, Suga said he told Putin that he wants to further develop Japan-Russia relations and that the row over the sovereignty of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido “should not be left for later generations to deal with.”

Putin said he is ready to continue dialogue on “all bilateral issues” and the two agreed to meet in person soon to hold frank discussions, according to Suga.

The decades-old dispute over the islands, called the Northern Territories by Japan and the Southern Kurils by Russia, has kept the countries from signing a peace treaty after the end of World War II.

Hours before the talks, Russia announced the start of military exercises on two of the islands, Kunashiri and Etorofu, involving more than 1,500 personnel and 200 machine guns and artillery pieces.

Japan’s top government spokesman said Tokyo was given advance notice of the drills last Thursday and had lodged a protest through diplomatic channels.

“Such actions are unacceptable as they will lead to a strengthening of Russia’s military presence on the islands and are incompatible with Japan’s position,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said at a press conference.

Japan eager to settle territorial row with Russia, Suga tells Putin

Photo taken from Rausu in Hokkaido, northern Japan, on Jan. 27, 2020, shows Russian-held Kunashiri Island. (Kyodo) 

The islands were seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in 1945. Tokyo argues the annexation was illegal and demands their return, while Moscow says it was a legitimate outcome of the war.

In the roughly 20-minute call on Tuesday evening, which was held at the request of the Japanese side, Putin told Suga that he was ready to “cooperate constructively” on a range of bilateral and international issues, a Japanese official said in a press briefing.

The two leaders agreed to develop Japan-Russia relations as a whole, including in the fields of politics, economics and culture, the official said.

Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe, and Putin had agreed to hold negotiations based on a 1956 bilateral agreement that mentions the other, smaller islands — the Habomai islet group and Shikotan — being returned to Japan after a peace treaty is concluded.

But little progress was made, and after announcing in late August his decision to resign due to health problems, Abe agreed with Putin by phone on the need for ongoing efforts to resolve the issue.

In the meantime, Japan and Russia have agreed to carry out joint economic projects on the islands in five areas — aquaculture, greenhouse farming, tourism, wind power and waste reduction — as a trust-building exercise.

Since being elected prime minister by parliament on Sept. 16, Suga has held a series of phone calls with world leaders including U.S. President , British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Moon Jae In.

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