Top diplomats from the United States and Russia are set to square off in Iceland for their first face-to-face encounter that comes as ties between the nations have deteriorated sharply in recent months.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia's longtime Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plan to talk in person on Wednesday on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, a city with deep history in U.S.-Russian relations.
The meeting is set to take place just as the Biden administration plans to announce new sanctions on Russia over a controversial European pipeline. The administration is expected to hit eight Russian companies and vessels with penalties for their involvement in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, while sparing two German entities from similar penalties, according to congressional aides and the German government.
Even before Wednesday's talks _ that are ostensibly to prepare for a summit between President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin next month _ the two diplomats laid down near diametrically opposed positions for the meeting, previewing what is likely to be a difficult and contentious exchange.
This follows a spate of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions as U.S.-Russian relations threaten a return to Cold War lows. The nuclear powers are at odds on myriad issues including Ukraine, the Arctic, Russia's treatment of opposition figure Alexey Navalny and accusations of cyber malfeasance, including claims that Russia-based hackers were responsible for a ransomware attack on a key U.S. pipeline.
``It would be our preference to have a more stable and more predictable relationship with Russia,'' Blinken said Tuesday. ``At the same time, 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.''
Blinken also tweeted Tuesday U.S. condemnation of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. ``We condemn Russia's abuses in Crimea, especially on May 18 as we reflect on the 77th anniversary of Stalin's deportation of countless Crimean Tatars from their native peninsula,'' he posted.
Perhaps anticipating Blinken's position and the expected sanctions announcement, Lavrov had offered a prebuttal at a news conference Monday in Moscow.
``Apparently, a (U.S.) decision was made to promote stable, predictable relations with Russia,`` he said. ``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 said his meeting with Lavrov would be an important opportunity to test the proposition that the U.S. and Russia can work collaboratively on certain issues, like climate change, the Mideast, Iran and North Korea, despite bitter disagreements on others. The meeting comes as much of the world is focused on Israel's crackdown on the West Bank and Jerusalem and military campaign on Gaza Strip.
Blinken noted that despite the vitriol, the U.S. and Russia had agreed early in the Biden administration to a five-year extension of a key arms control pact that President Donald Trump had declined to renew before he left office. Trump left a decidedly mixed legacy on Russia that included a personal friendly relationship with Putin, while his administration still imposed sanctions and other punitive measures.
Lavrov said Moscow would determine its own ``red lines'' and emphasized that in the sphere of strategic stability, it's going to insist on putting both offensive and defensive, nuclear and non-nuclear weapons on the negotiation table.
Another, more immediate area of disagreement in Reykjavik, the site of the famous 1986 summit between President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is the Arctic, where Russia has been expanding its military presence and pursuing policies to expand its influence to the alarm of the Americans.
Blinken rejected Russian calls to resume a military component of the Arctic Council and expressed concerns about Russia's increasing military activity in the region known as the ``high North.'' On Wednesday in successive meetings with foreign ministers from other Nordic Council members, Blinken repeatedly referred to the importance of ``continuing to maintain this region as one of peaceful cooperation.''
``We have concerns about some of the recent military activities in the Arctic,'' he said. ``That Increases the dangers of accidents and miscalculations and undermines the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region.''
Blinken also took Russia to task for proposing new navigational regulations for the region and decried Lavrov for comments in which he dismissed such criticism because the Arctic ``is our territory, our land.''
``We have to proceed all of us, including Russia, based on the rules, based on norms, based on the commitments that we've each made and also avoid statements that undercut those,'' Blinken said.
In his comments Monday, Lavrov noted the grievances about Russia's military activities in the Arctic. ``It has long been common knowledge that this is our territory, our land. We are in charge of keeping the Arctic coast safe. Everything Russia is doing there is absolutely legal,'' he said.
Moscow and Washington are also embroiled in a bitter dispute over the status of their respective embassies and consulates after the diplomatic expulsions. Russia has given the U.S. until Aug. 1 to get rid of all non-American staff at its diplomatic missions, something the U.S. says will make it nearly impossible for its facilities to function.
*This story was edited by Ahram Online.