Top US and Russian diplomats train firmly but politely in Iceland

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland – Senior diplomats from the United States and Russia clashed politely in Iceland in their first face-to-face meeting, which came as ties between nations have deteriorated sharply in recent months.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and longtime Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke candidly but calmly about their differences as they held talks on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting on Wednesday in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, a city with a deep history in US-Russian relations. .

“We are looking for a predictable and stable relationship with Russia,” Blinken told Lavrov, echoing comments from President Joe Biden, who proposed a summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin next month. “We believe it is good for our people, good for the Russian people and indeed good for the world.”

“It is also no secret that we have our differences and when it comes to those differences, as President Biden also shared with President Putin, if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners and our allies, we will respond – and President Biden has demonstrated this both in word and deed, not for escalation purposes, not to seek conflict, but to defend our interests, ”Blinken said.

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The meeting took place just as the Biden administration notified Congress of new sanctions against Russia on a controversial European pipeline. The administration hit eight Russian companies and ships with sanctions for their involvement in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, while sparing two German entities from similar sanctions, which would have a more significant effect on the project.

“We have serious differences in the assessment of the international situation, we have serious differences in the approaches to the tasks that need to be resolved for its normalization,” Lavrov said. “Our position is very simple: we are ready to discuss all issues without exception, but under the perception that the discussion will be honest, with the facts on the table, and of course on the basis of mutual respect.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, as they arrive for a meeting at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland on Wednesday May 19 2021, on the sidelines of the Ministerial Summit of the Arctic Council.  (Associated press)
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, right, as they arrive for a meeting at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland on Wednesday May 19 2021, on the sidelines of the Ministerial Summit of the Arctic Council. (Associated press)

Even before Wednesday’s talks, the two diplomats had set almost diametrically opposed positions for the meeting, giving a glimpse into what was likely to be a difficult and controversial exchange on a myriad of issues, including Ukraine, the Arctic, Russia’s treatment of opposition figure Alexey Navalny, and accusations of cyber-embezzlement. , including allegations that Russian-based hackers were responsible for a ransomware attack on a key US pipeline.

The meeting also followed a wave of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions as US-Russian relations threatened to return to Cold War lows.

After the meeting, which lasted more than an hour and 45 minutes than scheduled, the State Department said Blinken called on Russia to release two Americans it detains, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. He also expressed “deep concerns” about Russia’s military build-up on the Ukrainian border and its actions against Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, the department said.

Lavrov, meanwhile, told Russian journalists after the meeting that the talks had been “constructive” and that Russia had offered to launch a new and broad strategic dialogue. “There is a lot of rubble, it’s not easy to pick it up, but I felt Antony Blinken and his team were determined to do it. It won’t be a question for us,” he said. he said, according to the Tass news agency.

A senior US official called the meeting a “good start” without “controversy” which had allowed the two parties to “highlight a large number of issues that the two presidents could have the opportunity to discuss.” But neither side offered an update on progress towards a Biden-Putin summit, saying only that talks about its logistics are continuing.

Perhaps anticipating Blinken’s position and the announcement of expected sanctions, Lavrov offered a prebutt at a press conference in Moscow on Monday.

“Apparently, a (American) decision has been taken to promote stable and predictable relations with Russia,” he said. “However, if that includes constant and predictable sanctions, that is not what we need.”

Blinken said his meeting with Lavrov would be an important opportunity to test the proposition that the United States and Russia can work collaboratively on certain issues, such as climate change, the Middle East, Iran and Korea. North, despite bitter disagreements over others. The meeting comes as much of the world is focused on the Israeli-Palestinian war.

Blinken noted that despite the vitriol, the United States and Russia agreed at the start of the Biden administration on a five-year extension of a key arms control pact that President Donald Trump had. refused to renew before leaving office. Trump left a decidedly mixed legacy for Russia, which included a friendly personal relationship with Putin, while his administration still imposed sanctions and other punitive measures.

Another area of ​​disagreement, more immediate in Reykjavik, site of the famous 1986 summit between President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is the Arctic, where Russia has expanded its military presence and pursued policies to expand its influence, to the alarm. Americans.

Blinken noted that the United States and Russia have cooperated in the past on Arctic issues, although he has glossed over the deep American opposition to Russia’s increased military activity in the region and its proposal to renew a long-suspended military dialogue within the Arctic Council, made up of eight countries.

Blinken rejected Russia’s calls to take over a military component of the Arctic Council and expressed concern over Russia’s growing military activity in the region known as the “high north.” On Wednesday, in successive meetings with foreign ministers of other members of the Nordic Council, Blinken repeatedly referred to the importance of “continuing to maintain this region as a region of peaceful cooperation”.

“We are concerned about some of the recent military activity in the Arctic,” he said. “This increases the risk of accidents and miscalculations and undermines the common goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region.”

Blinken also criticized Russia for proposing new navigation rules for the region and decried Lavrov for his comments in which he dismissed these criticisms because the Arctic “is our territory, our land”.

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“We must act with all of us, including Russia, on the basis of the rules, on the basis of standards, on the basis of the commitments we each have made and also avoid statements that go against them “Blinken said.

In his comments on Monday, Lavrov noted grievances over Russia’s military activities in the Arctic. “It has long been common knowledge that this is our territory, our land. We are responsible for ensuring the security of the Arctic coast. Everything Russia does there is absolutely legal,” he said. declared.

Moscow and Washington are also embroiled in a bitter dispute over the status of their respective embassies and consulates following diplomatic expulsions. Russia has given the United States until August 1 to get rid of all non-U.S. Personnel from its diplomatic missions, which the U.S. says will make it nearly impossible for its facilities to operate.

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