Putin and Abe struggle for progress on island dispute

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hosted Shinzo Abe in Moscow on Thursday, visited Japan for the first time in 11 years last December

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday agreed to start flights for former residents to visit a disputed island chain as he and Japanese premier Shinzo Abe again struggled to make progress on a decades-old territorial dispute.

Russia and Japan have been blocked from signing a formal treaty to end World War II hostilities for seven decades over the island disagreement, hampering closer ties.

The Soviet Union seized the islands off Japan's northern coast -- called the Southern Kurils by Moscow and the Northern Territories by Tokyo -- in 1945 in the closing days of the war.

Abe's visit to Moscow on Thursday was the latest step in a major push by the two leaders to make headway on the dispute, but there has been no major breakthrough despite Putin making his first visit to Japan in 11 years for a summit last December.

In a small sign of progress on Thursday Putin said "Russia will provide direct air flights to take former Japanese residents of the islands with the aim of visiting graves of ancestors."

The Kremlin leader also announced that a group of Japanese officials and businessmen would head to the islands for a visit this summer to study possible joint projects that the two nations could start there.

- 'Trust and understanding' -

"We expect that all this will contribute to creating an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding," Putin said.

Abe welcomed the move and said "for the first time in history it has been decided to allow former residents to visit the graves of their relatives by plane", according to a Russian translation.

Japanese former inhabitants of islands have been allowed to make periodic visits to the islands in the past but this step is expected to simplify their trips.

As they have sought to resolve the thorny territorial dispute Moscow and Tokyo have also looked to boost trade and economic ties hit by Japan joining sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.

Abe has looked to eke out concessions by dangling the prospect of major Japanese investment in front of Moscow, which has faced a tough economic crisis.

Putin said that two sides were working on 80 "priority projects" ranging from infrastructure to agriculture, and that economic ties were already improving.

"It is gratifying that after a certain fall the situation has begun to improve in the sphere of economic cooperation," Putin said.

"From January to February this year, a growth in bilateral trade was seen."

Beyond the bilateral issues Putin and Abe also spoke about rising tensions over North Korea, that has seen a spike in tensions between Pyongyang and the US under President Donald Trump.

Putin said he and Abe called for "all states involved in regional affairs to refrain from combative rhetoric and strive for calm constructive dialogue", including the relaunching of six-way talks on Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.