Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday he was ready to sign a peace deal with Japan "without any preconditions" to end hostilities from World War II.
"We've been trying to solve the territorial dispute for 70 years. We've been holding talks for 70 years," Putin said at the Eastern Economic Forum in the Russian city of Vladivostok.
"Let's conclude a peace agreement, not now but by year's end without any preconditions," Putin said, referring to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who along with Chinese President Xi Jinping participated in the conference.
Putin's offer to settle the Kuril Islands dispute came just two days after he said that the territorial conflict was unlikely to be resolved soon.
The disputed Kuril Islands lie between Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and the Japanese island of Hokkaido. They are administered by Russia and claimed by Japan. Should the dispute finally be put to an end, Russia and Japan could formally sign a peace agreement – 71 years after the end of the World War II. In September, 1951, the Soviet Union refused to sign the Peace Treaty of San Francisco with Japan.
Prime Minister Abe has mounted a serious diplomatic initiative to have the Kuril Islands returned to Japanese sovereignty.
Read more: Kuril Islands: Japan protests Russian undersea cable to disputed territory
Speaking before Putin, Abe asserted that Japan and Russia "have a duty to future generations" regarding the islands dispute.
"Let us walk together mindful of the questions 'If we don't do it now, then when?' And 'If we don't do it, then who will?'" Abe said. "We are both fully aware that it will not be easy."
Some diplomats and analysts have taken Putin's proposal with a grain of salt.
"This is called trolling. Putin does not expect anything," Georgy Kunadze, a former Russian deputy foreign minister, told AFP news agency, adding that Abe would never accept a deal that would be political suicide for him.
On the other hand, giving up the islands would risk a political backlash at home for Putin, experts say.
"The government will continue its negotiations on the basic principle that we will sign a peace treaty after resolving the issue of the attribution of the Four Northern Islands," Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.
"This stance hasn't changed," he added.
Read more: Japan and Russia vow to end island dispute
shs/rc (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)