U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are set to hold talks in Iceland as they look to smooth a path for a possible presidential summit in the coming weeks amid deteriorating relations between the global superpowers.
U.S. and Russian officials said the two top diplomats will meet on the sidelines of an Arctic Council gathering in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, on May 19, the highest level meeting between the rivals since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January..
The talks are scheduled to start late in the evening after Lavrov arrives from the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, where he is attending a meeting of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
With U.S.-Russian relations threatening to return to the depths of the Cold War era, Blinken and Lavrov have a lot on their agenda.
The two powers have multiple issues dividing them -- including Moscow’s military buildup in and around Ukraine, maneuvering for position in the Arctic, Russia's treatment of opposition figure Aleksei Navalny, Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project through Europe, and U.S. accusations of Russian cyberwarfare and interference in Western electoral processes.
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"It would be our preference to have a more stable and more predictable relationship with Russia,” Blinken said on May 18.
“At the same time,” he added, “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.”
The idea of holding a summit was first floated by the White House last month, but it has still not been publicly confirmed. Russia's Kommersant newspaper on May 17 quoted government sources as saying Switzerland was the likeliest venue.
Blinken has warned that Washington is concerned over a military buildup in the Arctic, a region of strategic importance to world powers.
"We have concerns about some of the increased military activities in the Arctic that increase the...prospects of accidents...and undermine the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region," Blinken told reporters in Reykjavik on May 18, a day before the start of a meeting of the eight-member Arctic Council in the Icelandic capital.
"What we need to avoid is a militarization of the region," he added.
The 71-year-old Lavrov -- who has been the face of foreign policy for the Kremlin since 2004 -- said, "Apparently, a [U.S.] decision was made to promote stable, predictable relations with Russia."
“However, if this includes constant and predictable sanctions, that’s not what we need. Our attitude toward the U.S. includes the hope that normalized relations will be based on specific actions rather than words of which we have heard too many.”
Blinken has said their meeting is an important opportunity to test whether Washington and Moscow can find common ground and work together on other issues -- such as climate change, the Middle East, Iran, and North Korea.
In a sign of how difficult it may be to find common ground, Russian lawmakers voted on May 19 to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty allowing surveillance flights over military facilities following the departure from the accord by the United States late last year.
The United States formally withdrew on November 22 from the arms-control and verification agreement that Washington repeatedly said Moscow "flagrantly violated."
The U.S. move was another blow to the system of international arms control that former President Donald Trump had repeatedly scorned, complaining that Washington was being either deceived or unfairly restrained in its military capabilities.
Reykjavik is the site of the famous 1986 summit between President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
With reporting by AP and dpa