Russia-controlled Kunashiri Island is seen in the distance from the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido, Japan, Oct. 10, 2018.

Russia-controlled Kunashiri Island is seen in the distance from the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido, Japan, Oct. 10, 2018. (Seth Robson/Stars and Stripes)

TOKYO — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s interest in visiting islands his country took from Japan at the end of World War II may be a retort to Tokyo’s support for Ukraine, according to an expert in the region.

Putin, speaking at a town hall meeting Thursday in the Khabarovsk region, said he will visit the Kuril Islands, which include four captured from Japan — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — the Kyodo news agency reported Friday.

“I have heard that they are interesting sites, but unfortunately, I have never been there, so I will definitely go,” Putin told a Kunashiri travel industry worker at the meeting without giving a timeline for the trip, according to Kyodo.

After World War II, Russian troops occupied the islands and expelled 17,000 Japanese residents. The dispute over the islands, which Japan calls its Northern Territories, remains a source of tension and the reason the nations have yet to sign a peace treaty 76 years after the war.

Japan has complained about past trips to the islands by Russian officials, including visits by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in November 2010 and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin in July 2021.

Russia suspended negotiations on the territorial dispute and the peace treaty after Tokyo imposed economic sanctions on Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

“Russia has been looking for ways to hit back at Japan for its support of Ukraine,” James Brown, an international affairs expert at Temple University’s Japan campus, said in an email Friday.

This has included ending talks about a peace treaty, barring most visa-free visits for Japanese to the disputed islands, and banning imports of Japanese seafood, said Brown, author of the 2017 book, “Japan, Russia and their Territorial Dispute: The Northern Delusion.”

“A visit by Putin to the disputed islands should be seen in this context,” he said. “It would be a deliberate provocation against Japan.”

Tokyo would likely respond to a visit by Putin with a strong condemnation, Brown said.

“They may also consider temporarily withdrawing their ambassador from Moscow as a signal of their opposition,” he said. “It’s possible we may also see some protests near the Russian embassy in Tokyo.”

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi, at a news conference Friday, acknowledged Putin’s remarks about the visit.

“I will refrain from making comments to every remark made by Russian government officials, but the Government of Japan will continue to keep a close watch on the future situation and take appropriate measures,” Hayashi said in Tokyo.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine undermines the international order, Hayashi added.

“We will continue to provide strong support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia in order to stop the Russian aggression as soon as possible and to realize a just and lasting peace for Ukraine,” he said.

Putin’s planned visit seems like another aspect of an effort to reclaim the Russian empire, according to Paul Buchanan, an American security expert based in New Zealand.

“This is in line with traditional Russian geopolitical thought, which seeks to push Russian frontiers far away from the heart of the Motherland, thereby increasing the buffer around the core by adding another layer to the Russian periphery,” he said by email Friday.

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.
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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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