On March 20, for the first time in three years, since the annexation of Crimea, Russia and Japan held ministerial talks in Tokyo in the 2+2 format with the ministers of foreign affairs and defense. The talks precede Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Russia in late April. During the talks, the Russian delegation criticized the deployment of anti-missile defense systems in South Korea by the U.S. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after the talks: "We took note of serious risks posed by the deployment of elements of the global missile defense system of the United States to the Asia-Pacific region... We detailed our assessments showing that if this is about the threats coming from North Korea, then the creation of such a missile defense system, as well as arms buildup in the region, is not a proportionate response."
In January 2017, Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said that Japan also viewed the deployment of the U.S. THAAD missile defense systems as a possible option to enhance defense. Talking to his Japanese counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu expressed concerns towards the possibility of missile defense systems deployed to Japan. Shoigu stated: "There are fears that this will affect the balance of powers in the Asia-Pacific region." Shoigu and Inada also discussed the prospects of bilateral military cooperation. Shoigu underlined: "The suspension of high-level contacts between our defense ministries, initiated by Japan in 2014, including the cancellation of the Russian General Staff Chief’s visit to Tokyo, did no one any good."
Joint activity on the disputed Kuril Islands were not on the 2+2 format agenda. However, this matter was discussed on March 18 by the deputy foreign ministers of Russia and Japan. Back in February, Shoigu announced the intention to deploy a division in the Kuril Islands. Shoigu said: "We expect to complete the deployment of three divisions on the western and southwestern border. Active work continues to protect the Kurils, a division should also be deployed there this year ." At the talks in Tokyo, Inada reiterated his concerns in connection with Russia's deployment of Russian brigade and coastal missile systems in Kuril Islands. Shoigu told his counterpart that the deployment is "not aimed against anyone, but only to protect the territory of the Russian Federation, its borders, both from the sea and from the air."
The Russian media outlet Rbth.com informed that the 18th machine gun-artillery division is currently deployed on the islands, which includes 3,500 soldiers and will receive "modern defensive systems to protect against attacks from the air and sea."
It is worth noting that Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Japan on December 15-16. In anticipation of his visit, Nippon Television Network Corporation (Nippon TV) and the newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun interviewed the Russian President, focusing on the Kuril Islands dispute and the Joint Japanese-Soviet Declaration of 1956, which restored diplomatic ties. In the interview, Putin stated that the absence of a peace treaty is an "anachronism," inherited from the past and that it must be removed.
Following are excerpts from an article on Russian-Japanese relations by Valdai Club expert Valery Kistanov, who heads the Center for Japanese Studies at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Despite the 2+2 format indicates the interest to upgrade dialogue between Russia and Japan, Kistanov thinks that it is still too early to talk about any "breakthrough" in relations:
News conference following Russia-Japan two-plus-two format consultations, Tokyo, March 20, 2017. (Source: Mid.ru)
'[For Russia,] The Japanese-U.S. Treaty On Security Guarantees... Plays The Role Of 'NATO In The East'
"I don't think that we can talk about a breakthrough in relations between Russia and Japan because this implies that relations have reached a new qualitative level. The biggest obstacle is the territorial question and, as a consequence, the lack of a peace treaty between the two countries. There is also the Japanese-U.S. treaty on security guarantees, which for Russia, like for the Soviet Union before it, plays the role of 'NATO in the East.'
"Today the parties' positions on the main – territorial – problem are worlds apart. Japan insists that Russia, as the legal successor to the USSR, which seized the 'northern four islands' by force, holds them illegally, and insists on their return. Russia holds that the southern Kuril Islands reverted to it as a result of World War II and that Russian sovereignty over them is clear.
"Of course, the two countries have been inching closer together since 2016, mostly thanks to persistent efforts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He is staying this course despite criticism from the U.S. and other G7 members. The latter believe that he is out of step with them and is undermining the West's unity as it confronts an 'aggressive Russia,' although Japan does hold a negative view on Russia's annexation of Crimea and on Russian policy in eastern Ukraine, and has no intention to lift the (largely symbolic) sanctions it has introduced against Moscow in connection with these events.
"Paradoxically, Abe has suggested an economic cooperation plan in the hope that it will induce Putin to soften the Russian position on the territorial dispute. Japan is certainly aware of the difficult situation in the Russian economy caused by the sanctions and slumping oil prices.
"In no small measure, Tokyo's desire for closer contact with Moscow is motivated by the apprehension that China will monopolize Russia's natural resources in Siberia and the Far East and an intention to 'drag' Russia away from China in the area of military cooperation, because China's growing military might and vigorous expansion in the seas are seen by Tokyo as the biggest security threat to Japan."
Vitaly Podvitsky, Ria.ru, November 23.
Caption: "Hey, sensei, get back to reality".
'The Japanese PM [Believes] That The Long-Lasting Territorial Dispute Can Only Be Settled By Two Charismatic Politicians'
"In the meantime, the importance of Russia and Japan to each other as economic partners is quite insignificant. Their economies have a different structure and they are unlikely to close the gap in the foreseeable future. There is no reason to believe that cooperation with Tokyo will enable Moscow to mitigate the negative effect of Western sanctions, even if the economic agreements reached at the Russian-Japanese meeting in December are eventually implemented.
"In relations with Russia, the Japanese Prime Minister is putting a stake on building personal trust-based relations with Vladimir Putin in the belief that the long-lasting territorial dispute can only be settled by two charismatic politicians. This hides the desire to ultimately obtain control over the four southern Kuril Islands, or the 'northern territories,' to use the Japanese term, to which Japan is laying a claim.
"Abe's current foreign policy priority is to resolve the territorial problem on Japanese terms, along with the problem of abducted Japanese nationals in relations with North Korea. His dream is to come down in history as a politician who managed to solve a problem that remained unsolved for more than 70 years.
"But even the Putin-Abe meeting in Japan last December, the large number of signed economic cooperation agreements notwithstanding, failed to lead to any serious shifts in their positions on the territorial issue. More than that, Abe is facing strong criticism in his country (not only from the opposition but also from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party) for allegedly having conceded too much economy-wise and gotten nothing in exchange on the territories.
"In addition, Abe's hope that his economic cooperation plan will evince Russian concessions in the territorial dispute has not come to pass. Even an agreement on the joint economic development of the disputed territories the two leaders reached is faltering because of the parties' differing understanding of the legal basis that should underlie the effort.
"Judging by all appearances, Russian-Japanese relations will continue to develop as dynamically this year as they did last year, since Abe is scheduled to meet with Putin in Moscow in late April and in Vladivostok in early September . But resolving the territorial issue and signing a peace treaty seem to be beyond the visible horizon."
 Tass.com, March 20, 2017.
 Tass.com, March 20, 2017.
 Tass.com, March 20, 2017.
 Rbth.com, March 20, 2017.
Sputniknews.com, February 22, 2017.
 Ria.ru, March 20, 2017.
 See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6710, Ahead Of His Official Trip to Japan, Putin On The Kuril Islands Dispute: 'We Have No Territorial Problems At All; It Is Only Japan That Believes It Has Territorial Problems With Russia', December 15, 2016.
Valdaiclub.com, March 28, 2017.