Blinken and Russia's Lavrov tread carefully in first face-to-face meeting under Biden administration

Key Points
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov held their first face-to-face meeting since President Joe Biden took office.
  • The talks, which came on the heels of the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Iceland, lasted approximately 90 minutes.
  • The discussion between Blinken and Lavrov comes as the U.S. pushes back against Russia on a number of fronts.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gesture as they arrive for a meeting at the Harpa Concert Hall, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council Ministerial summit, in Reykjavik, Iceland, May 19, 2021.
Saul Loeb | Reuters

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov emphasized areas where Washington and Moscow could work together, despite their stark differences, in a cautious first first face-to-face meeting since President Joe Biden took office.

The meeting Wednesday evening, which came on the heels of the Arctic Council ministerial talks in Iceland, lasted approximately 90 minutes and was described by a senior State Department official as a "businesslike, productive discussion."

Blinken thanked Lavrov for taking the meeting and emphasized areas in which the two countries could cooperate.

"There are many areas where our interests intersect and overlap, and we believe that we can work together and, indeed, build on those interests," Blinken said, listing the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change. Lavrov echoed Blinken's remarks in finding common efforts in curbing the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

On the heels of the meeting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a call that the talks were "constructive" but added that "a lot of problems have accumulated" between Washington and Moscow.

Peskov said the Kremlin has not yet decided on a potential summit later this year between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Biden proposed a meeting, which would take place outside of the U.S. and Russia, during a call with Putin in April.

The discussion between Blinken and Lavrov, the highest-level in-person talks between Washington and Moscow under the Biden administration, comes as the U.S. pushes back against Russia on a number of fronts.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Costas Baltas | Reuters

Earlier this month, the Colonial Pipeline fell victim to a sweeping ransomware attack that forced the U.S. company to shut down approximately 5,500 miles of pipeline, leading to a disruption of nearly half of the East Coast fuel supply and causing gasoline shortages in the Southeast.

Ransomware attacks involve malware that encrypts files on a device or network that results in the system becoming inoperable. Criminals behind these types of cyberattacks typically demand a ransom in exchange for the release of data

The assault which was carried out by a Russian criminal cybergroup known as DarkSide is the latest cyberattack targeting U.S. critical infrastructure. After the attack, Biden told reporters at the White House that the U.S. did not currently have intelligence linking the DarkSide group's ransomware attack to the Russian government.

"So far there is no evidence from our intelligence people that Russia is involved although there is evidence that the actor's ransomware is in Russia, they have some responsibility to deal with this," Biden said on May 10. He added that he would discuss the situation with Putin.

The Kremlin has previously denied claims that it has launched cyberattacks against the United States.

Colonial Pipeline CEO explains his decision to pay ransom

In March, the United States sanctioned seven members of the Russian government for the alleged poisoning and subsequent detention of Alexei Navalny, the leading critic of Putin in Russia. The sanctions were the first to target Moscow under Biden's leadership. The Trump administration did not take action against Russia over the Navalny situation.

Later in the month, Biden called Putin a "killer" and vowed the Russian leader would "pay a price" for interfering in the 2020 U.S. election and trying to boost Trump's reelection chances.

In April, Washington slapped Russia with another round of U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses, sweeping cyberattacks and attempts to influence U.S. elections. The Biden administration also expelled 10 officials from Russia's diplomatic mission in the United States.

Ukrainian servicemen work on their tank close to the front line with Russian-backed separatists near Lysychansk, Lugansk region on April 7, 2021.
Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

Moscow has previously denied any wrongdoing and has dismissed U.S. allegations. Russia described the latest moves by the White House as a blow to bilateral relations and vowed to impose swift retaliatory measures.

In response to the U.S. action, Russia expelled 10 U.S. diplomats from the American Embassy in Moscow and sanctioned eight senior U.S. administration officials, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.

Last month, tensions between Washington and Moscow rose as Russia increased its military presence along the Ukrainian border, sparking concerns in the West of a potential war between the two neighboring countries. Russia ordered its troops to withdraw from the border last month.

Before the withdrawal, the Russian Defense Ministry said it was conducting more than 4,000 military drills to inspect the readiness of its forces.

The Ukrainian government said four of its soldiers were killed by Russian shelling in Donbass, where Russian-backed separatists oppose the central government in Kyiv.

At the time, the Kremlin denied claims that its forces were in eastern Ukraine and reiterated that Moscow will continue to move its forces across Russian territory at its discretion and called the escalating tensions "unprecedented." 

Russia could face 'more painful' sanctions should U.S. relations worsen