Top negotiators from the United States and Russia will meet this week in Iceland for the first time, as ties between the two countries have worsened dramatically in recent months.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s long-serving Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will meet Wednesday on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland, a city with a long tradition of US-Russian ties.
Even before the talks – that are ostensibly to prepare for a summit between President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin next month – the two diplomats laid down near diametrically opposed positions for the meeting, previewing what is likely to be a difficult and contentious exchange.
This follows a spate of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions as US-Russian relations threaten a return to Cold War lows. The nuclear powers are at odds on myriad issues including Ukraine, the Arctic, Russia’s treatment of opposition figure Alexey Navalny and accusations of cybermalfeasance, including claims that Russia-based hackers were responsible for a ransomware attack on a key US pipeline.
“It would be our preference to have a more stable and more predictable relationship with Russia,” Blinken said on Tuesday. “At the same time, we’ve been very clear that if Russia chooses to take reckless or aggressive actions that target our interests or those of our allies and partners, we’ll respond. Not for purposes of seeking conflict or escalating but because such challenges cannot be allowed to go forward with impunity.”
Blinken also condemned Russia’s 2014 secession of Crimea from Ukraine in a tweet on Tuesday. “We condemn Russia’s abuses in Crimea, especially on the 77th anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of countless Crimean Tatars from their native peninsula,” he wrote on Facebook.
Perhaps expecting Blinken’s stance, Lavrov delivered a rebuttal at a news conference in Moscow on Monday.
“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. Our attitude toward the US includes the hope that normalised relations will be based on specific actions rather than words of which we have heard too many.”
Blinken said his meeting with Lavrov would be an important opportunity to test the proposition that the US and Russia can work collaboratively on certain issues, like climate change, the Mideast, Iran and North Korea, despite bitter disagreements on others. The meeting comes as much of the world is focused on the Israel-Palestinian war.
Blinken noted that despite the vitriol, the US and Russia had agreed early in the Biden administration to a five-year extension of a key arms control pact that President Donald Trump had declined to renew before he left office. Trump left a decidedly mixed legacy on Russia that included a personal friendly relationship with Putin, while his administration still imposed sanctions and other punitive measures.
Lavrov said that Moscow will set its own “red lines,” emphasising that in terms of strategic security, Moscow would focus on negotiating both offensive and defence, nuclear and non-nuclear arms.
Another, more urgent point of contention in Reykjavik, the location of the famous 1986 summit between President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is the Arctic, where Russia has been increasing its military presence and implementing measures to increase its influence, much to the chagrin of Americans.
Blinken rejected Russian calls to resume a military component of the Arctic Council and expressed concerns about Russia’s increasing military activity in the region known as the “high North”.
“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. So we have to be vigilant about that.”
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 because the Arctic “is our territory, our land.”
“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,” Blinken said.
Lavrov raised concerns about Russia’s military efforts in the Arctic in his remarks on Monday. “It has long been known that this is our territory, our land. We are in charge of ensuring the protection of the Arctic coast. “Everything Russia is doing there is entirely legal,” he said.
Following the diplomatic expulsions, Moscow and Washington are both engaged in a bitter disagreement about the status of their respective embassies and consulates. Russia has given the United States until August 1 to exclude all non-American personnel from its diplomatic missions, which the US claims would make it virtually difficult for its facilities to operate.