US secretary of state tells Russian foreign minister he will defend American interests against any aggression from Moscow
Associated PressWed 19 May 2021 20.38 EDT
The US secretary of state and Russia’s foreign minister have sparred politely in Iceland in their first face-to-face encounter, which came as ties between the nations have deteriorated sharply in recent months.
Antony Blinken and Sergey Lavrov spoke frankly but calmly of their differences as they held talks on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, a city with deep history in US-Russian relations.
“We seek a predictable, stable relationship with Russia,” Blinken told Lavrov, echoing comments made by the US president, Joe Biden, who has proposed a summit with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, next month. “We think that’s good for our people, good for Russian people and indeed good for the world.”
Blinken said: “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.”
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.
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 normalisation.
“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.”
Even before Wednesday’s talks the two diplomats had laid down near-diametrically 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 the meeting, which ran for a longer than expected hour and 45 minutes, the state department said Blinken had called for Russia to release two Americans it holds, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. He also raised “deep concerns” about Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border and its actions against the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the department said.
Perhaps anticipating Blinken’s position and the expected sanctions announcement, Lavrov had offered a pre-emptive rebuttal on Monday in Moscow.
“Apparently, a [US] decision was made to promote stable, predictable relations with Russia,” he said. “However, if this includes constant and predictable sanctions, that’s not what we need.”
Blinken noted that despite some vitriol, 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.
Another, more immediate area of disagreement in Reykjavik, the site of the famous 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, is the Arctic. 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.”
Blinken also took Russia to task for proposing new navigational regulations for the region and decried Lavrov for comments in which he dismissed such criticism by claiming that the Arctic “is our territory, our land”.
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.”
In his comments on Monday, 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.