US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrive for a meeting at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, May 19, 2021, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial summit. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb / POOL

The US and Russian foreign ministers sought to ease tensions in their first meeting since President Joe Biden took office, saying they were ready to cooperate but acknowledging the wide gulf between the rival powers.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised the talks in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Wednesday, aimed in part at confirming a potential summit between presidents Biden and Vladimir Putin, as “constructive.”

“There is an understanding of the need to overcome the unhealthy situation in ties between Moscow and Washington,” Lavrov told reporters, although he added there were “a lot of logjams.” 

During the almost two hours of discussions, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed Washington’s “deep concerns” about Russian troops massed along the Ukraine border despite an announced pullback, as well as US disquiet on the health of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny and the “repression” of opposition organisations, a US State Department spokesman said.

Since taking over the White House in January, Biden has taken a firm line against Russia, going as far as describing Putin as a “killer” – in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump, who was accused of complacency towards the Russian leader.

But there are signs the two sides are seeking to appease each other.

At the start of the talks Blinken said, “Our view is that if the leaders of Russia and the United States can work together cooperatively … the world can be a safer and more secure place.”

“But if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners, our allies, we will respond,” Blinken warned, reiterating that Washington wants a “predictable and stable” relationship with Moscow.

“We are ready to discuss all issues without exception if we understand that discussions will be honest and based on mutual trust,” Lavrov responded.

Arctic tensions

Statements prior to the face-to-face talks on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting in Iceland had not boded well for a de-escalation of tensions.

Blinken had called for the Arctic to become a laboratory for cooperation focused on common challenges such as the fight against global warming.

But Lavrov issued a strongly worded warning on Monday.

“It has been absolutely clear for everyone for a long time that this is our territory, this is our land,” Lavrov said at a press conference in Moscow.

The Russian foreign minister at the same time accused Norway of “trying to justify the need for NATO to come into the Arctic.”

He insisted Russian military activity in the region is “absolutely legal.”

The Russian warning inevitably drew a response from Blinken, who on Tuesday stressed that Washington wanted to “avoid a militarization” of the Arctic.

“We have concerns about some of the increased military activities in the Arctic. That increases the dangers or prospects of accidents,” Blinken said.

Nord Stream 2

There were some signs of thawing relations just before the meeting, though, when the White House announced it would not impose sanctions against the main company involved in the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany, Nord Stream AG, and its managing director.

Sanctions are still planned against some entities, but the Biden administration wants to avoid antagonizing Berlin and that has meant doing Moscow a favor, clearing a major obstacle for the pipeline to go ahead despite objections.

Meanwhile, Lavrov stressed the need for “building and maintaining bridges and dialogue,” and said he was ready to “plough through the rubble left over from previous US administrations” to ensure the proper functioning of US and Russian diplomatic missions, currently reduced to minimum service following tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats.

Summit hurdles

Biden and Putin have agreed in principle to hold their first summit, possibly in June in a European country.

The bilateral summit may follow a G7 summit and a NATO leaders’ meeting, both of which are expected to display a united anti-Moscow front.

On Monday, Blinken said he expected the Biden-Putin summit to happen in the next few weeks.

However, asked by reporters after the meeting if Russia had formally agreed to the summit, Lavrov did not reply.

He said however that the two sides had agreed to prepare proposals for the top-level summit.

He said he had reiterated Moscow’s suggestion of beginning broad dialogue with the United States on strategic stability, stressing that Blinken did not refuse. 

“But experts will have yet to work on it,” he added.

– AFP