REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Top diplomats from the United States and Russia are set to square off this week in Iceland for their first face-to-face encounter that comes as ties between the nations have deteriorated sharply in recent months.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plan to talk today on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik.
Even before the talks -- that are ostensibly to prepare for a summit between President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin next month -- the two diplomats laid down near diametrically opposed positions for the meeting, previewing what is likely to be a difficult and contentious exchange.
This follows a spate of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions as U.S.-Russian relations threaten a return to Cold War lows. The nuclear powers are at odds on myriad issues including Ukraine, the Arctic, Russia's treatment of opposition figure Alexey Navalny and accusations of cybermalfeasance, including claims that Russia-based hackers were responsible for a ransomware attack on a key U.S. pipeline.
"It would be our preference to have a more stable and more predictable relationship with Russia," Blinken said on Tuesday. "At the same time, we've been very clear that if Russia chooses to take reckless or aggressive actions that target our interests or those of our allies and partners, we'll respond, not for purposes of seeking conflict or escalating but because such challenges cannot be allowed to go forward with impunity."
Blinken also tweeted Tuesday U.S. condemnation of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. "We condemn Russia's abuses in Crimea, especially on May 18 as we reflect on the 77th anniversary of Stalin's deportation of countless Crimean Tatars from their native peninsula," he posted.
Perhaps anticipating Blinken's position, Lavrov had offered a prebuttal at a news conference Monday in Moscow.
"Apparently, a [U.S.] decision was made to promote stable, predictable relations with Russia," he said. "However, if this includes constant and predictable sanctions, that's not what we need. Our attitude toward the U.S. includes the hope that normalized relations will be based on specific actions rather than words of which we have heard too many."
Blinken said his meeting with Lavrov would be an important opportunity to test the proposition that the U.S. and Russia can work collaboratively on certain issues, like climate change, the Mideast, Iran and North Korea, despite bitter disagreements on others. The meeting comes as much of the world is focused on the Israel-Palestinian war.
Blinken noted that despite the vitriol, the U.S. and Russia had agreed early in the Biden administration to a five-year extension of a key arms control pact that former President Donald Trump had declined to renew before he left office. Trump left a decidedly mixed legacy on Russia that included a personal friendly relationship with Putin, while his administration still imposed sanctions and other punitive measures.
Lavrov said Moscow would determine its own "red lines" and emphasized that in the sphere of strategic stability, it's going to insist on putting both offensive and defensive, nuclear and non-nuclear weapons on the negotiation table.
Moscow and Washington are also embroiled in a bitter dispute over the status of their respective embassies and consulates after the diplomatic expulsions. Russia has given the U.S. until Aug. 1 to get rid of all non-American staff at its diplomatic missions, something the U.S. says will make it nearly impossible for its facilities to function.
Information for this article was contributed by Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press.