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Top U.S., Russian diplomats to hold first in-person talks amid tense times

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken are set to hold talks in Reykjavik, Iceland on Wednesday night (May 19), following the official programme of the Arctic Council’s ministerial meeting.

The Arctic Council formed in 1996 comprises Denmark, Iceland, Canada, Norway, Russia, the United States, Finland and Sweden. 12 non-Arctic countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, India, China and France, have the observer status. During the event in Reykjavik, Russia will assume the rotating Arctic Council presidency for 2021-2023.

The face-to-face talks will be the highest level meeting since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January and come at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow.

The nuclear powers’ relations threaten a return to Cold War lows. In March Biden said he regarded Putin as a “killer”, prompting Moscow to recall its U.S. ambassador for consultations. Washington then imposed sanctions and expelled Russian diplomats over “malign” activities denied by Moscow, pushing Russia to retaliate in kind.

U.S. and Russian officials said Lavrov and Blinken will meet to prepare for a potential summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin next month.

“The bilateral meeting will take place after the evening’s final Arctic Council event and will provide an opportunity to test the proposition of whether we can achieve a relationship with Moscow that is more stable and predictable,” the spokesman for the US Department of State Ned Price said in a statement on Tuesday evening.

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the face-to-face between the top two diplomats was arranged to discuss “key issues of mutual relations and the international agenda.”

Reykjavik is  a city with a deep history in US-Russian relations. It is the site of the famous 1986 summit between President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Lavrov called the talks with Blinken “constructive”, Russian state media reported on Thursday (May 20). “The conversation seemed to me constructive. There is an understanding of the need to overcome the unhealthy situation that developed between Moscow and Washington in previous years,” TASS quoted the Russian Foreign Minister as saying.

“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,” the Russian top diplomat added.

Blinken said it was “no secret that we have our differences” and that Washington would respond to aggressive acts by Russia, but the world would be safer if the two countries’ leaders worked together.Blinken also said Biden wanted “a predictable, stable relationship with Russia.”

The meeting lasted one hour and 45 minutes, longer than the expected one hour.

With reporting by TASS, AP, DPA, Reuters