US targets ‘stable, predictable’ ties with Russia

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, said he hoped that Moscow and Washington could build “stable, predictable” ties to make the world “a safer more secure place” after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday.

The meeting in Reykjavik, which White House officials expected to be cordial but contentious, was the US’s first face-to-face contact with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin since Joe Biden took office this year.

Blinken and Lavrov said they hoped that they could smooth over their countries’ differences ahead of a mooted Biden-Putin summit in Europe in June.

“There are many areas where our interests intersect and overlap, and we believe we can work together,” Blinken said. “If the leaders of the United States and Russia can work together co-operatively . . . the world can be a safer and more secure place.”

Lavrov said he and Blinken wanted to “determine how we’re going to build our relationship in future” by “developing telephone conversations” between Biden and Putin.

“We have serious disagreements in our assessments of the international situation [and] the approaches to the issues that need to be addressed to normalise it,” Lavrov added.

Moscow and Washington have clashed over issues including new US sanctions, the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and Russia’s military build-up on the Ukrainian border.

The Biden administration has taken steps to punish Moscow over past actions, including what it alleges is a cyber hacking campaign, election influence operations and the maltreatment of Navalny.

Last month, the US expelled Russian diplomats who it claimed were undercover intelligence agents and imposed sanctions on sovereign Russian debt, a step it took with the aim of securing support from allies in Europe that have yet to follow suit.

But despite the move, US officials insist that the administration is aiming neither to reset nor escalate tensions.

Moscow responded by expelling 10 US diplomats and placing the US on a list of “unfriendly” countries barred from recruiting local staff, a move that in effect ends all US consular operations in Russia.

Neither side has its senior diplomat in place to prepare for the possible summit. Russia withdrew its ambassador to the US for consultations in March after Biden agreed with an interviewer that Putin was a “killer”. The US ambassador then returned to the US a month later for what the state department said was a break to see family after Moscow suggested that he should be recalled.

Lavrov said that Russia was prepared to “unload the baggage” from previous tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions under Biden’s predecessors in the hope that both countries’ embassies could return to normal. “If we don’t ensure proper working conditions for our diplomats, we’ll undermine the whole meaning of diplomacy, which is about creating and reinforcing bridges,” he said.

Since agreeing to work towards holding the Biden-Putin summit, which Russian officials have said is likely to take place in June, both countries have made steps to dial back the tensions. Russia withdrew some of its troops from the Ukrainian border last month and allowed Navalny, then 24 days into a hunger strike, to be treated by civilian doctors in prison.

The US has also opted to waive sanctions on the company overseeing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany and its chief executive, a former East German intelligence officer who is close to Putin.

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, is planning to meet his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev in the coming weeks, the Kommersant newspaper reported on Wednesday, in what would be the first in-person encounter with one of Putin’s most hawkish allies for two years.

The Biden administration is also seeking co-operation with Moscow over its bid to re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Afghanistan withdrawal, arms control issues and climate change.

A former senior US official predicted that US-Russia relations were in for “a very bad period” that were likely to carry on during the rest of Biden’s time in office, and said that the US would have to manage relations carefully.

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