Blinken, Lavrov agree to work together despite ‘serious differences’

Blinken and Lavrov hold first high-level talks between US and Russia in Biden's administration. Source: TASS

REYKJAVIK: Top diplomats from the United States and Russia in their first in-person meeting 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.

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

Lavrov, speaking through an interpreter 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.”

Senior US State Department officials said there were no breakthroughs in the meeting, but described it as a “good start” to work on relations between the two countries in “weeks, months and years to come.”

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.

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

The pair also discussed cybersecurity and Russia’s troop movements on its border with Ukraine, issues that have tested the already fraught ties this year, senior State Department officials told reporters. They repeatedly insisted that the meeting was “table setting” for future talks.

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

Lavrov told Russian state media the talks were “constructive” and that Russia was ready to discuss all issues between the two countries “on the basis of mutual respect.” The two diplomats would prepare proposals for a possible meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov said.

State Department officials referred questions about a presidential meeting to the White House, but said there was an acknowledgment that “strategic stability” would be discussed. Blinken pushed for Russia to release US citizens Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed and raised the health of detained Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, US officials said.

Half an hour into the meeting, the US imposed sanctions on some ships and entities involved in the 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.

Before the announcement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had said the waiving of those sanctions would help normalise ties between Moscow and Washington. A State Department official said the pipeline came up in the talks but was not the subject of extended discussion.