Lavrov Meets Blinken: Old Disagreements Remain but Possibilities Arise of a less Anti-Russian Washington
- US Secretary of State meets Russian Foreign Minister as concerns grow over increasing Russia-China solidarity
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has met with the US secretary of state Antony Blinken in Reykjavik in their first face-to-face meeting as they held talks on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting.
The meeting took place just as the Biden administration notified Congress of new sanctions on Russia over a controversial European pipeline. The administration hit eight Russian companies and vessels with penalties for their involvement in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, while sparing two German entities from similar penalties, which would have a more significant effect on the project.
Russia has long accused the United States of using sanctions to prevent Russia competing with the United States on global markets, and especially in energy.
Lavrov said: “We have serious differences in the assessment of the international situation, we have serious differences in the approaches to the tasks which have to be solved for its normalization. Our position is very simple: we are ready to discuss all the issues without exception, but under perception that the discussion will be honest, with the facts on the table, and of course on the basis of mutual respect.”
Blinken reportedly replied “We seek a predictable, stable relationship with Russia. We think that’s good for our people, good for Russian people and indeed good for the world. It’s also no secret that we have our differences and when it comes to those differences, as President Biden has also shared with President Putin, if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners, and our allies, we’ll respond – and President Biden has demonstrated that in both word and deed, not for purposes of escalation, not to seek out conflict, but to defend our interests.”
Before the talks, Lavrov and Blinken had laid down completely opposed positions for the meeting, previewing what was likely to be a difficult and contentious exchange over myriad issues including Ukraine, the Arctic, Russia’s treatment of the opposition figure Alexei Navalny and accusations of cyber malfeasance, including claims that Russia-based hackers were responsible for a ransomware attack on a key US pipeline.
The meeting also followed a spate of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions as US-Russia relations threaten a return to cold war lows.
After their discussions, which ran for longer than expected at close to two hours, the US state department said the United States has asked Russia to release two Americans it currently holds, Paul Whelan, who is currently serving 16 years imprisonment on spying charges, and Trevor Reed, a US Marine currently serving nine years for assaulting a Russian policeman. The US state department said that Blinken also raised “deep concerns” about Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border and its actions against the Voice of America radio station which have been fined for violating terms of Russian radio programming.
Lavrov meanwhile had offered a pre-emptive rebuttal the previous day in anticipation of Blinken’s remarks, stating that “Apparently, a [US] decision was made to promote stable, predictable relations with Russia. However, if this includes constant and predictable sanctions, that’s not what we need.”
Blinken noted that despite some diplomatic spats, the US and Russia had agreed early in the Biden administration to a five-year extension of a key arms control pact that Donald Trump had declined to renew. Trump left a decidedly mixed legacy on Russia that included a friendly personal relationship with Putin, while his administration still imposed sanctions and other punitive measures.
Blinken expressed concerns about Russia’s increasing military activity in the region known as the “high north”. On Wednesday, in successive meetings with foreign ministers from other Nordic Council members, Blinken repeatedly referred to the importance of “continuing to maintain this region as one of peaceful cooperation”.
“We have concerns about some of the recent military activities in the Arctic,” he said. “That increases the dangers of accidents and miscalculations and undermines the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region.” He also took Russia to task for proposing new navigational regulations for the region and dismissed Lavrov’s comments in which he claimed that the Arctic “is our territory, our land”. Russia has been upgrading navigational standards to go hand in hand with the development of shipping across the Northern Sea Passage across the Arctic Ocean as global warming makes the transit easier and less expensive than using the Suez Canal route from Asia to Europe.
Blinken said: “We have to proceed all of us, including Russia, based on the rules, based on norms, based on the commitments that we’ve each made and also avoid statements that undercut those.”
Lavrov noted the grievances about Russia’s military activities in the Arctic. “It has long been common knowledge that this is our territory, our land. We are in charge of keeping the Arctic coast safe. Everything Russia is doing there is absolutely legal,” he said.
Moscow and Washington are also embroiled in a bitter dispute over the status of their respective embassies and consulates after diplomatic expulsions. Russia has given the US until 1 August to get rid of all non-American staff at its diplomatic missions, something the US says will make it nearly impossible for its facilities to function.
While the meeting did not at face value appear to achieve a great deal other than show off each other’s grievances, it did allow for Lavrov and Blinken to establish a personal relationship and perhaps pave the way for US President Biden to meet with Russian President Putin later in the year. For that to be effective, one feels that the United States will need to feel it may well have gone too far in bullying Russia and has pushed Moscow towards Beijing – a situation that Washington also views with increasing alarm.
Russia Briefing is written by Dezan Shira & Associates. The firm has 28 offices throughout Eurasia, including China, Russia, India, and the ASEAN nations, assisting foreign investors into the Eurasian region. Please contact Maria Kotova at email@example.com for Russian investment advisory or assistance with market intelligence, legal, tax and compliance issues throughout Asia.