REYKJAVIK, Iceland -- Top diplomats from the U.S. and Russia sparred politely Wednesday in Iceland in their first face-to-face encounter, which took place as ties between the nations have deteriorated sharply in recent months.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke frankly but calmly of their differences as they held talks on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, a city with deep history in U.S.-Russian relations.
"We seek a predictable, stable relationship with Russia," Blinken told Lavrov, echoing comments made by President Joe Biden, who has proposed a summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin next month. "We think that's good for our people, good for Russian people and indeed good for the world."
"It's also no secret that we have our differences and when it comes to those differences, as President Biden has also shared with President Putin, if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners, and our allies, we'll respond -- and President Biden has demonstrated that in both word and deed, not for purposes of escalation, not to seek out conflict, but to defend our interests," Blinken said.
The meeting took place just as the Biden administration notified Congress of new sanctions on Russia over a controversial European pipeline. The administration hit eight Russian companies and vessels with penalties for their involvement in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, while sparing two German entities from similar penalties.
"We have serious differences in the assessment of the international situation, we have serious differences in the approaches to the tasks which have to be solved for its normalization," Lavrov said. "Our position is very simple: We are ready to discuss all the issues without exception, but under perception that the discussion will be honest, with the facts on the table, and of course on the basis of mutual respect."
Even before Wednesday's talks, the two diplomats had laid down near diametrically opposed positions for the meeting over myriad issues including Ukraine, the Arctic, Russia's treatment of opposition figure Alexey Navalny and accusations of cyber malfeasance, including claims that Russia-based hackers were responsible for a ransomware attack on a key U.S. pipeline.
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 President Donald Trump had declined to renew before he left office. Trump left a decidedly mixed legacy on Russia that included a friendly personal relationship with Putin, while his administration still imposed sanctions and other punitive measures.
Another, more immediate area of disagreement in Reykjavik is the Arctic, where Russia has been expanding its military presence and pursuing policies to expand its influence, to the alarm of Americans.
Blinken rejected Russian calls to resume a military component of the Arctic Council and expressed concerns about Russia's increasing military activity in the region known as the "high North." On Wednesday, in successive meetings with foreign ministers from other Nordic Council members, Blinken repeatedly referred to the importance of "continuing to maintain this region as one of peaceful cooperation."
"We have concerns about some of the recent military activities in the Arctic," he said. "That increases the dangers of accidents and miscalculations and undermines the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region."
Information for this article was contributed by Vladimir Isachenkov of The Associated Press.