Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sat down for talks Tuesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin focusing on a decades-long territorial dispute between the two nations.

The Soviet Union took the four southernmost Kuril Islands during the final days of World War II. Japan asserts territorial rights to the islands, which it calls the Northern Territories, and the dispute has kept the countries from signing a peace treaty.

Speaking at the start of the talks, Abe said he would like to discuss the peace treaty issue based on last week’s talks between top diplomats of the two countries.

Abe has held dozens of meetings with Putin in recent years in a bid to solve the dispute, and they agreed in November to accelerate negotiations based on a 1956 Soviet proposal to return two of the islands to Japan.

Earlier this month, Abe voiced hope that this year will mark a breakthrough in talks and spoke about an imminent change of the islands’ status — remarks that irked Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Japan last week that it must recognize all four islands as part of Russia as a starting point for talks — a tough demand that did not bode well for Abe’s talks with Putin.

On Sunday, Kremlin foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov noted that recent statements from Tokyo made the talks between the two presidents even more difficult.

Japanese media reports have indicated that Tokyo is open to a deal for transfer of two smaller islands to Japan, fueling concerns in Russian nationalist circles.

Several dozen demonstrators gathered outside the Japanese Embassy in Moscow to protest against the islands’ return. One of the protesters held a placard reading: “We didn’t vote for the sale of the islands.”

Left-wing activist Sergei Udaltsov said Tuesday that 11 protesters were detained by police.

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