US and Russia stress dialogue despite 'serious differences'

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet on the sidelines of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Reykjavik on May 19, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

REYKJAVIK (REUTERS) - Top diplomats from the Biden administration and Russia in their first in-person meeting on Wednesday (May 19) stressed that the former Cold War foes have serious differences in how they view world affairs but struck an optimistic tone for the talks, saying the two sides can still find ways to work together.

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a veteran diplomat, said it was "no secret that we have our differences" and that Washington would respond to aggressive acts by Russia, but that the world would be safer if the two countries' leaders worked together.

Mr Lavrov, speaking through a translator at the opening of the meeting in Reykjavik on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting, said Russia and the US have serious differences but have to cooperate "in spheres where our interests collide".

Mr Blinken said US President Joe Biden wanted "a predictable, stable relationship with Russia" and said the two countries could work together on tackling the coronavirus pandemic, combating climate change, dealing with Iran and North Korea's nuclear programmes, and the war in Afghanistan.

"We think that's good for our people, good for the Russian people and indeed good for the world," Mr Blinken said.

The meeting was the first high-level, in-person discussion between the Biden administration and a Russian counterpart ahead of a possible presidential summit next month in an attempt to improve their dire relations.

Ties have been fraught since March when Mr Biden - not long into his presidency - said he regarded Russian President Vladimir Putin as a "killer", prompting Moscow to recall its US ambassador for consultations. The envoy still has not returned.

Half an hour into Wednesday's meeting, the US imposed sanctions on some ships and entities involved in construction of the US$11 billion (S$15 billion) Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would take Russian gas from the Arctic to Germany, a deal that Mr Biden has opposed. The administration decided, however, to waive sanctions on the company behind the pipeline and its chief executive.

After his brief remarks, Mr Lavrov did not respond to shouted questions on the sanctions. Before the announcement, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov had said that the waiving of those sanctions would help normalise ties between Moscow and Washington.

Mr Lavrov, summarising Russia's posture towards the US, described it as very simple.

"We are ready to discuss all the issues without exception, but under the perception that the discussion will be honest, with the facts on the table, and of course on the basis of mutual respect," he said.

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