US’s Blinken, Russia’s Lavrov stress dialogue despite ‘serious differences’ in first meeting

Reykjavik: Top diplomats from the Biden administration and Russia in their first in-person meeting on Wednesday stressed that the former Cold War foes have serious differences in how they view world affairs but struck an optimistic tone for the talks, saying the two sides can still find ways to work together.

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a veteran diplomat, said it was “no secret that we have our differences” and that Washington would respond to aggressive acts by Russia, but that the world would be safer if the two countries’ leaders worked together.

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Lavrov, speaking through a translator at the opening of the meeting in Reykjavik on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting, said Russia and the United States have “serious differences” but have to cooperate “in spheres where our interests collide.”

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Blinken said Biden wanted “a predictable, stable relationship with Russia” and said the two countries could work together on tackling the coronavirus pandemic, combating climate change, dealing with Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, and the war in Afghanistan.

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“We think that’s good for our people, good for the Russian people and indeed good for the world,” Blinken said.

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The meeting, the first high-level, in-person discussion between the Biden administration and a Russian counterpart, lasted one hour and 45 minutes, longer than the expected one hour.

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Lavrov said the talks were “constructive” and the two diplomats would prepare proposals for a possible meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Russian state media.

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A readout of the meeting from State Department spokesman Ned Price did not mention the possible presidential summit.

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Blinken pushed for Russia to release US citizens Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed, raised concerns over Russia’s military deployments in and near Ukraine and raised the health of detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, Price said.

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

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Half an hour into Wednesday’s meeting, the US imposed sanctions on some ships and entities involved in construction of the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would take Russian gas from the Arctic to Germany, a deal Biden has opposed. The administration decided, however, to waive sanctions on the company behind the pipeline and its chief executive.

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After his brief remarks, Lavrov did not respond to shouted questions on the sanctions. Before the announcement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had said the waiving of those sanctions would help normalise ties between Moscow and Washington.

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Lavrov, summarizing Russia’s posture toward the United States, described it as “very simple.”

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“We are ready to discuss all the 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.”

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