In the closing days of World War II, the Soviet Union seized four desolate Japanese islands just a few miles off the coast of Japan's northern region of Hokkaido. The Kremlin has refused to return the islands and, as a result, the two countries have never signed a peace treaty ending the war.

Over the years, the Soviets have built several airstrips, deployed a few fighter planes, stationed 4,500 troops, and moved in some settlers. This minor military presence has turned the northern Japanese Sea of Okhotsk into a "Russian lake."In its determination to recover the islands, Japan is now offering the Kremlin the most expensive real estate deal in history - the equivalent of $28 billion in aid. This includes loans for construction of automobile factories and petrochemical plants, $2 billion for oil and gas development, and a large number of Japanese forklift trucks.

Intense negotiations currently are underway between Moscow and Tokyo over the status of the islands and Japanese officials hope to have the deal wrapped up in time for President Mikhail Gorbachev's trip to Japan April 16-19, the first such visit by a Soviet leader.

The $28 billion offer for such negligible pieces of real estate seems too good for the cash-starved Soviet Union to pass up, especially since it also could lead to closer economic and political ties between the two countries, something the Soviets have long desired.

Yet such is the apparent growing power of hard-liners in Moscow that contradictory offers and proposals regarding the islands have been coming out of the Kremlin. Some Soviet military leaders warn against return of the islands for "strategic" reasons.

Another aspect that may be influencing hard-liners is the fact that the occupied islands are administered by the huge Russian Federation, led by Gorbachev's arch rival Boris Yeltsin. The conservatives don't want to do anything that might make Yeltsin look good or appear to diminish the Soviet empire.

The decision - to take the cash or spurn the lucrative deal in favor of the old Cold War habit of conquest and control - will indicate what kind of attitude prevails in the Kremlin.

There aren't many of the old splits from World War II left. North and South Korea are one example. The Japanese islands are another. It would be a sign of progress if the island dispute could be resolved and one more old difference laid to rest.