Russia Wants to Build a Rail Bridge to Japan, Linking Tokyo to Europe

A train guard checks his watch ahead of departure as he leans out of a window on a Shinkansen bullet train at Tokyo Train Station on May 02, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan. As currently planned, the bridge would link the Russian island of Sakhalin with Japan’s northernmost major island of Hokkaido. Carl Court/Getty Images

Russia wants to strike a deal with Japan to build a 28-mile bridge between the two countries that could link Moscow to Tokyo by land and rail.

The project has repeatedly come up in discussions between officials from the two countries. During Russian President Vladimir Putin's previous term, the Kremlin greatly intensified its outreach to the world's third biggest economy.

Putin reignited speculation about the long-rumored project last year, when he announced that a land link between Russia and Japan would have "planetary" significance.

Since then, the future of the project has been unclear, but Moscow's envoy to Japan said it is still very much on the discussion table.

"Of course this topic, among other potential Russo-Japanese projects, is being discussed via the inter-governmental commission for trade and economic matters' channels," Ambassador Mikhail Galuzin told state news agency RIA Novosti in an interview published on Wednesday. The diplomat said the issue of the bridge also "features" in the dialog Russian companies were having with Japanese enterprises.

As currently planned, the bridge would link the Russian island of Sakhalin with Japan's northernmost major island of Hokkaido. The line will likely pass over La Pérouse Strait stretching from Russia's Cape Crillon and Japan's Cape Soya.

The 28-mile stretch between the two islands is the missing link in a series of construction projects that could allow rail travel from European Russia to Japan's main island Honshu, where Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Kyoto, Nagoya and other cities are located.

"We hope that this marquee project, unique for Russian-Japanese relations will continue to be the subject of, more than anything, constructive discussions and will eventually be realized," Galuzin said.

Japan's Hokkaido is already connected to Honshu via the Seikan Tunnel, which passes under the Tsugaru Strait.

Russia is in the process of constructing an $8 million bridge from its mainland to Sakhalin. Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said in September that the money has already been set aside and work could begin in 2018, state news agency Itar-Tass reported.

The Russian government has previously said the connection, be it by bridge or tunnel, between its own mainland and Sakhalin will be the initial step to a bridge to Japan.

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Despite the frequent communication between the two governments, one formality has dampened chances of large joint-projects—their countries are still technically at war.

A disagreement over four islands between Sakhalin and Hokkaido, seized by the troops of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during the final days of World War II, have stymied attempts to strike a peace deal between Moscow and Tokyo for decades.

The conflict has become a hurdle for lucrative deals between the two countries, as Hiroshige Seko, Japan's Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry, said last year that the dispute is preventing Tokyo from buying more liquefied natural gas from Russia. Without agreement on the disputed islands, the Sakhalin-Hokkaido bridge may continue suffering delays, despite the potential economic benefits.

"Both in the Soviet period and today, the Kremlin has tended to make decisions on political grounds rather than economic grounds," Ambassador William Courtney, adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation previously told Newsweek.

"It makes economic sense for Russia to resolve this issue with Japan. But Putin is probably concerned about his political situation. He is probably more concerned about pressure from the ultranationalists to look strong."