U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met for the first time on Wednesday since President Joe Biden took office.
The two top diplomats convened on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meetings in Reykjavik, Iceland, to set the stage for a future possible meeting between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The encounter came amid increased tensions between the two nations with Washington and Moscow at odds on several fronts, including Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine and Syria, its treatment of political activists and its interference in U.S. elections.
The U.S. in April imposed several sanctions against Russian agencies and companies and has expelled Russian diplomats over several alleged actions tied to 2020 election interference. Russia, denying any wrongdoing, has responded in kind, recently making it illegal to hire locals at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Blinken acknowledged those tensions and struck a stern tone with Lavrov at the opening of the two leaders’ joint news conference.
“It’s also no secret that we have our differences. And when it comes to those differences, as President Biden has also shared with President Putin, if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners, our allies, we’ll respond,” Blinken said.
The meeting came just as the U.S. announced its decision not to levy sanctions against Gazprom, the company behind the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project in Europe — another sore spot between the two countries. The project consists of hundreds of miles of pipeline that would connect Russia and Germany. The State Department has said the project threatens European energy security.
Blinken said Wednesday the U.S. seeks “a predictable, stable relationship with Russia,” and that there are areas where Washington and Moscow’s interests overlap.
“Whether it is dealing with COVID-19 and the pandemic, combating climate change, dealing with the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, Afghanistan, there are many areas of intersecting interests,” Blinken said.
He added, “It’s our view that if the leaders of Russia and the United States can work together cooperatively, our people, the world can be a safer and more secure place, and that’s what we seek.”
Lavrov indicated a wish to cooperate with his U.S. counterpart, too, but warned Moscow stands ready to retaliate if the U.S. takes action against Russia.
“Our position is clear. We are prepared to discuss all issues on the table with the understanding that our discussions will be honest, factual, and with mutual respect,” Lavrov said. “Laws of diplomacy recommend mutuality, especially when it comes to response to any kind of hostile actions.”