US, Russia to hold Arctic talks in push for summit

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Danish foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod (not seen) during a joint press conference following their meeting at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Copenhagen, Denmark, 17 May 2021. [Mads Claus Rasmussen/EPA/EFE]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s veteran Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were expected to hold talks on Wednesday night (19 May) amid a push to agree a presidential summit despite dire ties between the former Cold War foes.

The face-to-face talks on the sidelines of a gathering of eight foreign ministers in Reykjavik will be the highest level meeting since US President Joe Biden took office in January.

Ties have been fraught since March when Biden – not long into his presidency – said he regarded President Vladimir Putin as a “killer”, prompting Moscow to recall its US ambassador for consultations. The envoy still hasn’t returned.

Biden calls Putin 'a killer' and says will pay a price

In an interview aired on Wednesday (17 March), US President Joe Biden said his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin is “a killer” and warned that he will soon face consequences for directing efforts to swing the 2020 US presidential election in Donald Trump’s favour.

Washington then imposed sanctions and expelled Russian diplomats over “malign” activities denied by Moscow, pushing Russia to retaliate in kind. It later barred the US embassy from hiring local staff.

Given the adversarial prelude, immediate gains from the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov are likely to be modest, though they could pave the way for a Putin-Biden summit next month.

The summit idea was floated by the White House last month, but it has still not been publicly agreed. Russia’s Kommersant newspaper on Monday cited government sources touting Switzerland as the likeliest venue.

Biden says hopes to meet Putin during June trip to Europe

US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday (4 May) he would like to hold his proposed summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his June trip to Europe.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Lavrov and Blinken will meet on Wednesday night after the Arctic Council, a regional grouping of eight nations, has finished meeting.

Washington’s ties with Moscow have been at post-Cold War lows for years, strained over everything from election meddling allegations to Ukraine and the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

“We don’t seek to escalate, we are simply … looking for a more predictable, stable relationship,” said a senior State Department official.

Besides the summit, the talks could broach the subject of expulsions that have crimped the work of their diplomatic missions as well as progress on nuclear arms control.

Lavrov, 71, has been the dour face of Kremlin foreign policy since 2004 as Moscow has asserted what it says is its rightful standing as a great world power. Russia has beefed up its military presence in the Arctic and invested in northern infrastructure.

Blinken criticised Moscow on Tuesday for making “unlawful maritime claims” on the regulation of foreign vessels transiting the shipping route over Russia’s long northern coastline. He said Washington was worried about the region’s increasing militarization.

Lavrov on Monday dismissed NATO concerns over increasing Russian military activity in the Arctic, saying Moscow was right to ensure the security of its northern coastline.

He said Moscow would wait to see what Washington meant by stable and predictable ties with Russia. “If that means stable, predictable sanctions then that’s not what’s needed.”

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