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September 20, 2021
Blinken and Lavrov to hold first high-level meeting of Biden's presidency as US-Russia tensions simmer

Blinken and Lavrov to hold first high-level meeting of Biden’s presidency as US-Russia tensions simmer

Blinken and Lavrov will meet on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in Iceland without a stringent time limit or any topics off-limits, sources familiar with the plans for the meeting explained. The discussion is expected to cover a wide range of substantive issues between the two nations ahead of a possible summit between Biden and President Vladimir Putin early this summer — but many of them are fraught.
The two men are meeting a day after news broke that the US will not sanction the company in charge of building Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, despite strongly opposing the project with a State Department spokesperson calling it a “Russian malign influence project” that “threatens European energy security and that of Ukraine and eastern flank NATO Allies and partners.”

The top US diplomat is expected to directly raise a range of aggressive Russian activities, including the Solar Winds hack that targeted private businesses and government, Moscow’s election interference, the wrongful detention of US citizens in Russia, its human rights abuses and detention of opposition activist Alexey Navalny, and the expulsion of each other’s diplomats, three sources said.

Blinken also plans to emphasize areas where the countries could work together — such as North Korea, Iran, and Arctic issues — explained another source. In comments to reporters Tuesday, Blinken made clear that the US also has disagreements with Russia on the resource-rich and strategically important Arctic, particularly Moscow’s push to militarize the region, but stressed that there, too, the US will look for areas of cooperation.

“We have concerns about some of the increased military activities in the Arctic. That increases the injuries or prospects of accidents, miscalculation, and undermines the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region, so we have to be vigilant about that,” Blinken said, speaking at a press conference in Iceland.

“There’s been cooperation on a number of important areas, over the years on education, oil spill response, search and rescue, pollution issues, and it is our hope that that … the Arctic means an area of peaceful cooperation and peaceful collaboration,” Blinken said.

Biden administration officials want the Putin-Biden summit to go forward so that the two leaders can discuss matters face-to-face. In the lead-up to that high level meeting, US officials are taking a measured approach to Moscow, explained one source familiar.

That approach contributed, in part, to Biden’s carefully calculated response to the recent hack on the Colonial Pipeline, which was carried out by a criminal group based in Russia, one source said. There is no evidence “so far” that Russia is involved in the cyberattack, Biden said, but he added that Russia has “some responsibility to deal with this.”

State Department spokesman Ned Price said the hope is to “achieve a relationship with Moscow that is more stable and predictable.”

Since Biden’s election, stability and predictability have been in short order and in April, the US intelligence community said in an annual report that Russia “presents one of the most serious intelligence threats to the United States.”

Moscow has also been making clear it can pose a military threat. Russia built up a massive troop presence along the border of the US’s eastern European allies, including Ukraine, this spring and in April blocked foreign naval ships and state vessels in the Kerch Strait, the sea of Azov and parts of the Black Sea — a move NATO and the Pentagon criticized.

As Blinken sits down with Lavrov, a major question for Biden administration officials is where Russia intends the presidential summit to go in terms of substance and tenor, two sources said. During Wednesday’s meeting, Biden and Lavrov are expected to take stock of one another, said sources familiar with the planning, as well as Russia experts, which will inform how their countries prepare for a possible leaders meeting.

One critical issue on the agenda involves the US embassy in Moscow and its ability to function.

Russia sanctions eight US officials and expels diplomats in retaliation for Biden's actions

In April, Lavrov announced what he called “tit for tat” measures against the US after Biden announced sanctions to punish Moscow for its interference in the 2020 US election, the SolarWinds cyberattack and its ongoing occupation and “severe human rights abuses” in Crimea. Those US penalties included the expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats in Washington, including “representatives of Russian intelligence services.”

Russia responded with a barrage of measures that included sanctions against eight senior US administration officials, including FBI director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines; expelling 10 US diplomats; curbing the ability of those remaining to travel around Russia; barring the ability of Russians or third-country nationals from working at the embassy; and suggesting US Ambassador John Sullivan leave the country.

Russia’s ambassador to the US had already returned to Moscow in March after Biden agreed with the assessment that Putin is a “killer” in a TV interview.

Like his administration officials, Biden has said the US will work with Russia where possible — the two sides cooperated soon after Biden took office to extend the New START arms control agreement — but that Moscow will also face consequences for its actions against the US and its allies.

During his first foreign policy speech, Biden underscored that point. “I made it clear to President Putin in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning citizens are over,” he said.