When Yoshiro Mori visits Russia next month, as special envoy from Japan, it will represent the best opportunity since 1945 for the two nations to resolve disputes stretching back to the second world war. Not only will Mori be seeking an agreement on the control of a handful of barren islands off the northern tip of Japan, his trip on behalf of new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could pave the way for the signing of a formal peace treaty to end the war. The goals sound grand, but of all the territorial disputes engaging Japan, this is the one with the greatest chance of a favourable diplomatic resolution. It is not clear whether comments that Mori, who served a year as prime minister, made on Wednesday represent the Japanese government's official position on the matter or merely an opening gambit for talks. Standing in front of a map of the islands, which stretch from the tip of Hokkaido to Russia's far eastern territory of Sakhalin, Mori suggested that a new boundary line could be drawn that would leave Etorofu in Russian hands, while Japan reassumed control over the more southerly territories of Kunashir, Shikotan and the Habomai group of small islands. The islands were all seized by the Soviet Union in the dying days of the war and Moscow, which knows the islands as the Southern Kurils, has steadfastly declined to negotiate on their sovereignty. As a result, the two nations have been waiting for more than 60 years to sign a formal peace treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed hope in March last year that the dispute might be settled in a manner that is acceptable to both sides. Of all Tokyo's territorial disputes with its neighbours, including spats with China and South Korea, this one has the greatest likelihood of a positive outcome, analysts believe. "If there is one place where Japan can make progress, it's with Russia," said Jun Okumura, an analyst with the Eurasia Group. "Russia actually needs Japan and there has always been a fear in Moscow of the Chinese coming." Moscow has invested heavily in its fossil fuel output, primarily natural gas, but with a flood of new energy sources scheduled to come online around the world in the next couple of years, Putin must be aware that he needs to secure stable new markets. Japan, where a question mark still hangs over the nuclear industry, would be a perfect customer. Okumura expects Mori's visit to Moscow to be the first step, followed by a bout of horse trading of Russian-held territory in exchange for Japanese investment in infrastructure and energy projects in the Russian far east.