The US and Russia have announced that Blinken and Lavrov will be convening in a side session during a ministerial meeting of the Arctic Council, scheduled for May 20, 2021. While any meeting between the individuals responsible for the foreign relations of their respective governments is always noteworthy, especially when tensions are at a high level, the real purpose of the meeting appears to be to come to terms about a possible summit between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. As such, the stakes of this meeting couldn’t be higher.
The choice of the Arctic Council as the forum for this important ministerial meeting, while influenced by the realities of the calendar, is also driven by the fact that the Arctic Council is one of the few venues where US-Russian dialogue is unburdened by the kind of hot-button topics that are the bane of relations between these two nations today. As the First Deputy Secretary of the Russian Security Council Yuri Averyanov noted in a recent interview, “the Arctic is one of few fields where Russia and the US successfully manage to have a dialogue on a decent level.”
The reason for this, Averyanov said, is that the Arctic Council is precluded by its charter from discussing issues of a military nature, and instead focuses on “practical questions” such as coordination between coast guards, management of fisheries, and the safety of shipping. As such, there is no political or diplomatic minefield that Blinken and Lavrov will need to negotiate before having their meeting.
This does not mean that it is guaranteed to succeed — far from it. The US State Department read-out of the telephone call between Blinken and Lavrov that preceded the announcement of their Reykjavik rendezvous underscored Blinken’s reiteration of President Biden’s “resolve to protect US citizens and act firmly in defense of US interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies.”
Blinken’s posturing mirrored a similar stance taken by President Putin during his Victory Day speech on May 9. There, Putin declared that “Russia is consistently defending international law while continuing to protect our national interests and the security of our people.” Putin’s words, however, must be viewed in the context of his earlier comments, made in the aftermath of President Biden’s “soulless killer” comments this March. Then, Putin bluntly declared that Russia “will work with the US, but in the areas that we are interested in and on terms that we believe are beneficial to us…and [the US] will have to reckon with this.”
This new attitude on the part of Russia may account for the difference in both tone and content in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s read-out of the Lavrov-Blinken phone call, which noted that the two agreed to hold a separate meeting on the sidelines of the 9th Arctic Council ministerial session “in order to review key issues of bilateral relations and the international agenda.”
No mention was made by the Russians of Blinken’s reiteration of Biden’s “resolve” to respond to Russian “actions.” This does not mean that Blinken did not make such a statement, but rather that the Russians recognize Blinken’s need to appease an American domestic political audience, while leaving the door open for viable dialogue with Moscow that conforms to the new reality laid down by Putin back in March.
The tone and content represented in the May 12 phone call was a far cry from the more confrontational stance taken barely a week prior at the United Nations. There, Blinken declared that the US would “push back forcefully when we see countries (i.e., Russia) undermine the international order, pretend that the rules we’ve all agreed to don’t exist, or simply violate them at will.” For his part, Lavrov derided the notion of a rules based international order as defined by the US. He said that the US was seeking to create a “a new club based on interests, with a clearly ideological nature” through the vehicle of a ‘Summit for Democracy’, currently scheduled to take place before year’s end, that could “further inflame international tensions and deepen dividing lines in a world that needs a unifying agenda more than ever.”
If Washington and Moscow were to repeat the exchange of acerbic barbs at their Reykjavik summit, it would probably become one of the shortest meetings in the history of US-Russian ministerial affairs. Russia has made it clear that it neither has the time nor inclination to put up with US moral posturing. It appears for the moment that the US may have gotten the message.
Beyond the limited discussion on issues of joint concern, the main purpose of the Blinken-Lavrov meeting appears to be for the two statesmen to set the stage for a possible summit between Biden and Putin. While Biden has previously raised the possibility of such a meeting during a phone call with his Russian counterpart in April, the Kremlin said Putin wouldn’t meet Biden in the near future, citing difficulties in organizing such a meeting on short notice. Despite the lack of public enthusiasm from the Russian side about a Biden-Putin summit, the American president remains confident that such a meeting will take place, perhaps as soon as the mid-June gathering of the G-7. But so far no certain agreement has been reached and the issue “is still at the stage of discussion and analysis,” according to the Kremlin spokesman.
Part of the process of “discussion and analysis” undoubtedly includes the upcoming Blinken-Lavrov meeting. The bottom line is that the US needs a Biden-Putin summit more than Russia does. There appears to be a growing recognition on the part of US foreign and national security actors that US-Russia relations are in danger of spinning out of control in ways that will be detrimental to the interests of both the US and its allies. While a Blinken-Lavrov meeting will not come close to either resolving the outstanding issues that exist between the two nations, it could set the tone and expectations for a summit between their respective heads of state.
If Blinken can pull off such a meeting without resorting to the employment of the kind of moralizing rhetoric that has generated the ire of Russia in the past, then the prospects of a Biden-Putin summit this summer are good. But if the American secretary of state reverts to form, and crosses the well-defined diplomatic red lines that have been set by the Russian leadership regarding the tone and content of diplomatic discourse between the two nations, all bets are off.
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