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High-Level Talks Between Blinken and Lavrov Since Ukrainian Invasion

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Top diplomats from the United States and Russia met and spoke briefly on Thursday for the first time since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, without indicating any move toward easing simmering tensions between the two countries.

The high-level personal conversations between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov came as relations between Washington and Moscow deteriorated over Russia’s war with Ukraine, and tensions rose amid countless disagreements, complaints and recriminations. On other matters ranging from arms control to embassy staff and prisoners.

US officials said Blinken and Lavrov chatted for about 10 minutes on the sidelines of the G20 foreign ministers’ conference in New Delhi. But there was no sign of any progress, and the meeting ended with the caucus unable to reach a consensus on the Ukraine war.

Yet, with relations at their lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War, the mere fact of the two men meeting showed that, at least for the time being, the high-level lines of communication between Washington and Moscow remained open.

At a press conference, Blinken told Lavrov that the United States would continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes and would press for an end to the war through diplomatic terms agreed to by Kiev.

“End this war of aggression, and engage in meaningful diplomacy that can produce a just and lasting peace,” Blinken told Lavrov. He noted, however, that “President Putin has shown no interest in participating, saying there is nothing to talk about unless Ukraine accepts, I quote, ‘the new regional reality’.”

Blinken also urged Russia to reverse its “irresponsible decision and return to” participation in the New START nuclear treaty.

“Mutual compliance is in the interest of our two countries,” Blinken told Lavrov. He added that “no matter what happens in the world, in our relationship, the United States is always ready to engage and act on strategic arms control, just as the United States and the Soviet Union did even at the height of the Cold War.”

Blinken also urged Moscow to release the detained American Paul Whelan and said, “The United States has made a serious proposal. Russia should take it.”

Blinken had told the G20 meeting earlier that Russia’s war with Ukraine could not go unchallenged.

“We must continue to call on Russia to end its war of aggression and withdraw from Ukraine for the sake of international peace and economic stability,” Blinken said. He noted that 141 countries voted to condemn Russia at the United Nations on the first anniversary of the invasion.

However, several G20 members, including host India, China and South Africa, chose to abstain. As a result, despite pleas from senior Indian officials to look beyond their differences on Ukraine and reach consensus on other issues, the foreign ministers were unable to do so or agree on a final statement.

Indian Foreign Minister Subramaniam Jaishankar said that there were “differences” on the issue of war in Ukraine, “we could not reconcile them because different parties have different views”. “If we had a perfect meeting of minds on all issues, it would have been a collective statement,” said Jaishankar.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier pleaded with all members of the divided G-20 to reach consensus on issues of particular concern to poor countries even if the broader East-West divide over Ukraine could not be overcome.

“We all have our own positions and views on how to resolve these tensions,” Modi said. “We should not allow issues we cannot solve together to get in the way of those we can solve.”

According to the summary of Thursday’s meeting released by India, China and Russia objected to two paragraphs taken from the previous G20 declaration in Bali last year. Blinken lamented that “Russia and China are the only countries that have made it clear that they will not sign the text.”

The paragraphs stated that the war in Ukraine had caused enormous human suffering while exacerbating fragility in the global economy, the need to uphold international law, and that “the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is not permitted.”

Despite the failure to achieve full consensus, Blinken said he is optimistic that 18 of the 20 countries have agreed on a statement calling for an end to the war and immediate steps to improve energy and food security that have been deeply affected by the conflict.

Lavrov, who did not mention speaking with Blinken when he held a news conference after the G-20 session, told reporters that Moscow would continue to press its move in Ukraine. However, he brushed off Western claims about Russia’s isolation, saying, “We do not feel isolated. It is the West that has isolated itself, and it will eventually realize that.”

He said Russia remains open to talks on ending the conflict in Ukraine, but accused the West of actively blocking such discussions.

“They invite us for talks, but I don’t remember any Western colleague calling Ukraine for talks,” he said. “They are encouraging Ukraine to continue the war.”

Lavrov also mocked the US threats against China, which presented a peace plan to Ukraine that was praised by Moscow but rejected by Washington and its Western allies.

“Our Western colleagues have lost their restraint, forgotten their morals, put diplomacy aside and turned exclusively to blackmail and threats,” he said.

Russia had no immediate comment on the content of the conversation, but Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Blinken had asked to speak to Lavrov.

It was their first contact since last summer when Blinken spoke to Lavrov on the phone about a US proposal to Russia to release Whelan and formerly detained WNBA star Brittney Grenier. Greiner is later released in an exchange for imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, but Whelan is still being held in Russia.

Whelan, a corporate security executive in Michigan, has been in custody for four years on espionage charges that his family and the US government have said are baseless.

His brother, David, said the family is grateful that Blinken “took such high profile, a rare opportunity to include Paul’s freedom in his discussions with Kremlin representatives.” But he noted that Paul Whelan turns 53 on Sunday, his fifth birthday in custody. David Whelan said in an email that he was being held in the Mordovia region in “below zero degrees” with the heat stopping.

He said, “Paul still suffers… So for all his statecraft and stalling, our brother languishes another Christmas and with that many milestones as a Russian hostage.”

The last time Blinken and Lavrov met in person was in Geneva, Switzerland, in January 2022, on the eve of the Russian invasion. At that meeting, Blinkin warned Lavrov of the consequences of Russia continuing with its planned military operation, but also sought to address some of the complaints Russian President Vladimir Putin had about the United States and NATO.

Those talks proved inconclusive — Russia went ahead with its invasion plans, and Blinken then canceled a scheduled follow-up meeting with Lavrov that was scheduled for just two days before it eventually invaded Moscow on February 24, 2022.

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