REYKJAVIK: The US and Russian foreign ministers are meeting in Iceland on Wednesday evening to gauge the enormous gulf between the rival powers and confirm a potential summit between presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.
Statements preceding the face-to-face talks on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting in Iceland do not bode well for the de-escalation of tensions that both countries say they want, with relations at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed to want to make the Arctic — a new geopolitical issue at the heart of the regional meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Reykjavik — a laboratory for cooperation focused on common challenges such as the fight against global warming.
But his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov issued a strongly worded warning.
“It has been absolutely clear for everyone for a long time that this is our territory, this is our land,” Lavrov said at a press conference in Moscow on Monday.
The Russian foreign minister at the same time accused Norway of “trying to justify the need for NATO to come into the Arctic”.
He insisted Russian military activity in the region is “absolutely legal”.
The Russian warning inevitably drew a response from Blinken, who on Tuesday stressed that Washington wanted to “avoid a militarisation” of the Arctic.
“We have concerns about some of the increased military activities in the Arctic. That increases the dangers or prospects of accidents,” Blinken said.
On Wednesday, during a meeting with his Canadian counterpart Marc Garneau, Blinken stressed his country’s desire “to preserve this region as a place for peaceful cooperation,” on such issues as climate change, science and sustainable development.
Nord Stream 2
The potentially tense sit-down is scheduled for 9:15 pm (2115 GMT) after an opening dinner of the Arctic Council — which brings together the eight countries bordering the region.
Since taking over the White House in January, Biden has taken a strong line against Russia, going as far as describing Putin as a “killer” — in sharp contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump, who was accused of complacency towards the Russian leader.
But there are signs the sides are seeking to appease each other.
Just before the meeting in Reykjavik, Berlin appeared to confirm that the White House had ultimately decided not to sanction the main company involved in the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany, Nord Stream AG, and its managing director.
“There is a presidential waiver,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, welcoming it as a conciliatory step.
Sanctions are still planned against some entities, but the Biden administration wants to avoid antagonising Berlin, according to the website Axios and broadcaster CNN.
This decision, if confirmed, would clear a major obstacle for the pipeline to go ahead despite US opposition.
As late as Tuesday, Blinken “emphasised US opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline” in a call with Maas, and reminded Maas of Berlin’s commitment to work with “partners to counter Russian efforts to undermine our collective security,” according to the US State Department.