TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, currently chair of the G-7, has said he wants to bring Russian President Vladimir Putin back into the fold to engage Moscow’s help over a litany of crises in the Middle East. Abe’s remarks, in a joint interview with Japan’s Nikkei business daily and the Financial Times published Monday, come with Washington and Moscow taking opposite sides over the years-long civil war in Syria, with the region also wracked by conflict in Yemen, a Saudi-Iran row, as well as countless other issues. “We need the constructive engagement of Russia,” Abe told the news outlets. “I believe appropriate dialogue with Russia, appropriate dialogue with President Putin is very important.” Abe said he was willing to go to Moscow, or to invite Putin to Tokyo for talks. Russia counts Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad among its strongest allies in the Middle East, and Moscow — which also holds a permanent veto-wielding seat on the U.N. Security Council — is seen as a powerbroker in the region. The G-7 group of advanced economies consists of the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States. It formerly included Russia under a G-8 configuration, but Moscow was evicted following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. In a video excerpt of the interview posted on the Nikkei website, Abe also said that “as the chair of the G-7” he would consider a visit to Russia “at the appropriate time,” which the Nikkei newspaper interpreted as meaning ahead of the G-7 summit in May. The remarks came after Abe said on Jan. 4 that the international community must encourage Russia’s participation in the global fight against terrorism, the crisis in Syria and relations with Iran.
Abe at that time also renewed his call on Putin to make progress on a territorial dispute with Tokyo dating from the closing days of World War II. Japan and Russia have never officially struck a peace accord due to the territorial row over four Japanese islands seized by Soviet troops at the war’s conclusion. Abe’s remarks courting Putin came soon after Tokyo struck a historic deal with South Korea aimed at settling a dispute over Japan’s use of wartime sex slaves, another unresolved issue left over from World War II. In the Nikkei-FT interview, Abe also said the international community should “raise its voice” against mainland China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, where it has multiple territorial disputes with Southeast Asian countries.