Things were polite and even at times chummy during the first high-level talks between the United States and Russia on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting in Iceland where Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken mutually expressed a desire for better and more stable relations. International reports were unanimous in framing it as a good vibes atmosphere where in the two played nice at a moment the US waived sanctions on the Nord Stream-2 pipeline.
Blinken initially rolled out with the required and routine “tough” talk, telling reporters after the face-to-face meeting: “If Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners, our allies, we will respond…And President Biden has demonstrated that in both word and deed.” But the US top diplomat added: “We seek a predictable, stable relationship with Russia. We think that’s good for our people, good for the Russian people and indeed good for the world.”
While nothing in the way of “breakthroughs” were reported after the 90-minute meeting, it was seen as setting the stage for the proposed Putin-Biden summit in June. “There are many areas where our interests intersect and overlap, and we believe that we can work together and, indeed, build on those interests,” Blinken said further, offering examples of combating COVID-19 and climate change. Lavrov for his part called it “constructive” – saying “There is an understanding of the need to overcome the unhealthy situation that developed between Moscow and Washington in previous years,” according to TASS.
We should note the irony in Russia admitting an “unhealthy” decline in relations which came precisely during the Trump years… all the while media gatekeepers attempted to convince the public and the world that Trump was somehow under Moscow’s influence and “compromised”. During a moment of banter and laughter between the two rival officials, Lavrov even seemed to hint at this irony, saying perhaps sarcastically, “Nobody is shouting, nobody is asking questions” – in reference to the media circus characteristic of the prior Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, for example, or really any other time US and Russian dared to communicate during the Trump years. Routine diplomacy had at that time essentially been criminalized in a frenzied media atmosphere in which “everyone’s a Russian asset!” – a trope which tainted any level of hoped-for positive terms with the Kremlin.
“I think it’s a slow night in Reykjavik,” Blinken quipped in response.
.@SecBlinken and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov met on the sidelines of the Arctic Council summit in Iceland as the U.S. seeks a “more stable” relationship with Moscow https://t.co/nrCvp6pWIf pic.twitter.com/9mxZdnrAfQ
— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) May 20, 2021
“Today we confirmed our proposal to start a dialogue, considering all aspects, all factors affecting strategic stability: nuclear, non-nuclear, offensive, defensive. I have not seen a rejection of such a concept, but experts still have to work on it,” Lavrov added. Similar to Blinken, he admitted that “serious differences” remain, with dialogue and cooperation essential “in spheres where our interests collide”:
“We have serious differences in the assessment of the international situation, we have serious differences in the approaches to the tasks which have to be solved for its normalization,” Lavrov said. “Our position is very simple: We are ready to discuss all the issues without exception, but under perception that the discussion will be honest, with the facts on the table, and of course on the basis of mutual respect.”
Meanwhile some senior US State Department officials were cited in Reuters as calling the meeting a “good” start to a process of pulling relations out of the cold, with more positive interactions expected in the “weeks, months and years to come”.
Blinken and Lavrov kicked off their first meeting of the Biden era with a productive tone, both stressing the need to work together. Stark difference from Blinken’s explosive meeting with Chinese counterparts pic.twitter.com/sXoPvPZHTd
— John Hudson (@John_Hudson) May 19, 2021
It’s interesting that the Wednesday night Iceland meeting came and went with a mere yawn from the mainstream media, with scant coverage compared to what would be expected after years of tension-stoking and hyped reports suggesting that any attempt to reach out to the Kremlin was a show of being “compromised”.
No doubt helping to soften the tone was the Biden administration decision to waive sanctions on the German company overseeing completion of the Nord Stream 2 Russia to Germany natural gas pipeline, a project which Washington said it still opposes. The waiving of the Trump-imposed sanctions against Nord Stream 2 AG and CEO Matthias Warnig took effect late in the day Wednesday.