MOSCOW • Russian President Vladimir Putin has 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.
Mr 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.
But in a small sign of progress, Mr 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 to study possible joint projects that the two nations could start there.
Mr 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".
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.
Moscow and Tokyo have also looked to boost trade and economic ties hit by Japan joining sanctions on Russia over the crisis in Ukraine.
Mr 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.
Mr Putin said the two sides were working on 80 priority projects, ranging from infrastructure to agriculture, and that economic ties were already improving.
Mr Putin and Mr Abe also spoke about the situation on the Korean peninsula, which has seen a spike in tensions between North Korea and the United States, under President Donald Trump.