RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Russia and Japan are still at war, at least on paper. The two neighbours in the Pacific Ocean never signed a peace treaty officially ending World War II. Today Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. And there are high expectations for some kind of deal out of this meeting. NPR's Lucian Kim joins us on the line from Moscow. Hi, Lucian
LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: World War II ended more than 70 years ago. Why have Russia and Japan still not been able to make peace?
KIM: Well, the two countries have been military rivals in the Pacific for more than a century. And actually, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in the last month of World War II, so those hostilities were relatively short. But then came the Cold War. Japan was a key U.S. ally, and there really wasn't a lot of room for negotiation. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was talk of normalizing relations. But the sticking point here has been the Kuril Islands. It's a chain of islands between Russia and Japan. The Soviet Union seized them at the end of World War II and claims them now as their own, while Japan still considers them occupied territory.
MARTIN: Wow. So World War II isn't over between these two countries because of a territorial dispute?
KIM: Yes, exactly. And this issue is very sensitive in both countries. There were actually leaks in the Japanese press earlier this month that Russia is ready to give back two of those islands, which caused a very angry reaction here in Moscow. The Foreign Ministry said the Japanese were really jumping the gun. In fact, Moscow and Tokyo have been talking about this kind of compromise since the 1950s. But in a poll released in November, it showed that 74 percent of Russians are against a transfer of territory even if that does mean a peace treaty with Japan. Of course, there is a precedent. President Putin has given China a couple of river islands back to settle a border dispute. But after annexing Crimea, Putin has kind of positioned himself as a leader who's into expanding and not shrinking Russian territory.
MARTIN: Right. So Japan is still a key U.S. ally in Asia. Obviously, the United States has a very fraught relationship with Russia. But can you outline how a potential peace agreement between Japan and Russia might affect the U.S.?
KIM: Right. Well, I mean, Japan is a very close ally and right now is cooperating with the U.S. on a new missile defense system, which Russia is vehemently opposed to. And it's also been reported that Russia is concerned that - if there is a transfer of some islands, that no U.S. troops would be stationed on them if they are returned to Japan. Putin is really interested in weakening U.S. alliances everywhere, whether that's in Europe or in Asia. And Japan, as a member of the G-7, also has sanctions on Russia because of the annexation of Crimea. So a peace deal and, you know, just a general warmer climate between Moscow and Tokyo could help increase Putin's leverage in the region.
MARTIN: So what's actually going to come out of this meeting between Putin and Abe today?
KIM: Well, this is their 25th meeting. They do talk a lot with each other and have established a certain rapport. Putin indicated last year that he's ready for a deal. But again, this issue of the islands is very sensitive. Putin faces falling popularity at home, and this kind of territorial transfer could hurt him even more.
MARTIN: Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thanks so much.
KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.