Blinken-Lavrov: first meeting between Russian and US diplomacy on Arctic issue

The two politicians met in Reykjavik with the other members of the Arctic Council

REUTERS/SAUL LOEB  -   U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as he arrives for a meeting at the Harpa concert hall on the sidelines of the Arctic Council ministerial summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, 19 May 2021.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday night in Iceland. The meeting was part of the Arctic Council ministerial session in Reykjavik.

The summit between Blinken and Lavrov is the first between the heads of Russian and US diplomacy. Its being held in the Icelandic capital has symbolic value, as former presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in 1986.

"We seek a stable and predictable relationship with Russia", Blinken said. Relations between Moscow and Washington have cooled in recent months. The Biden administration's first sanctions targeted Russian officials over the Navalny case. In addition, the US president called Vladimir Putin a 'murderer'. Moreover, the escalation of tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border led to further straining of these ties. "It's no secret that we have our differences", the secretary of state said, clearly alluding to those disagreements. Blinken also warned that, as Biden has already informed Putin, "if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners and our allies, we will respond".

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AFP PHOTO / Russian Foreign Ministry / handout - Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meet at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, early on 20 May 2021, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council ministerial summit.

Days before the meeting, Lavrov referred to US sanctions against Russia and the obstacle they pose to good bilateral relations. “Apparently, a (US) decision was made to promote stable, predictable relations with Russia. However, if this includes constant and predictable sanctions, that’s not what we need", the Russian minister said. He added that Russia's attitude towards the US was based on "specific actions rather than words". Lavrov was referring not only to the sanctions over the Navalny case, but also to the new sanctions over a European oil pipeline. The Biden administration imposed sanctions on the Russian-controlled Nord Stream 2 company for the construction of the gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Berlin, opposing the US decision, has insisted that the sanctions are "interference in its internal affairs". Washington has called the project a "geopolitical security risk".

However, in the midst of this meeting and with the aim of lowering tensions, Washington has lifted sanctions against Nord Stream 2, but maintains them against ships and companies involved in the construction of the pipeline.

Despite the attempt to improve ties, Lavrov and Blinken have disagreed on some issues, such as the militarisation of the Arctic, where the Secretary of State has expressed his "concern", arguing that this could increase "the danger of accidents", as well as being incompatible with the goal of a "peaceful and sustainable future for the region". Lavrov, on the other hand, declared that "we are in charge of keeping the Arctic coast safe. Everything Russia is doing there is absolutely legal". The Russian minister also recalled the militarisation of other countries, alluding to NATO. "We have questions for our neighbors like Norway who are trying to justify the need for NATO to come into the Arctic.”

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AFP/ SAUL LOEB - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Norwegian Foreign Minister Ine Marie Eriksen Soreide (right) at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, on the sidelines of the Arctic Council ministerial summit on 19 May 2021.

Despite differences on issues such as Ukraine, however, Lavrov told reporters after the meeting that the talks had been "constructive". US officials agreed with the Russian minister, describing them as "a good start" that allowed "many issues to be addressed". Blinken announced that this meeting would also serve to discuss other relevant issues such as the new escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and the environment.

This meeting could be the prelude to the meeting between Putin and Biden, which could take place in the coming months. As Blinken said, face-to-face talks are key to a more stable relationship. 

Russian interest in the Arctic

The Arctic may be another area of contention between Biden and Putin, as it is a major Russian foreign policy objective. Indeed, countries such as Canada, a member of the Arctic Council, already warned Russia about its actions in the Arctic in 2007. In that year, two Russian submarines descended to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, subsequently planting a Russian flag in a titanium capsule in the area. "This isn't the 15th century. You can't go around the world and just plant flags and say 'We're claiming this territory'", said Peter MacKay, Canada's Foreign Minister.

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AP/VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV - Russia has made reasserting its military presence in the Arctic a top priority.

The roof of the world has been one of Russia's priorities since Soviet times. However, it was the tsars who first mapped northern Siberia. In 1937, the first Soviet mission to the North Pole took place. From this historic event, infrastructure such as roads and bridges began to be developed in the region.

Russia was not the only country to show interest in this unknown part of the world. Other states with part of their national territory in the Arctic have also begun to claim their role in the area. This is why the Arctic Council was created in 1996 by the Ottawa Declaration. This international forum consists of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States. The Council's objectives are to cooperate on Arctic issues, develop sustainable development programmes and protect the environment as well as indigenous minorities in the area.

Global warming is playing a key role within the Arctic. Melting ice opens up new possibilities for exploitation. The US Geological Survey announced in 2008, at the height of its expansion into the area, that the Arctic held 90 billion barrels of oil and 44 billion barrels of natural gas. These estimates represent 13 per cent and 30 per cent respectively of the world's reserves of these precious resources. In addition to all the valuable materials it contains, it could become an important international shipping route

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REUTERS/STOYAN NENOV - US Marines at a military drill in the Norwegian town of Setermoen.

For these reasons, the Arctic will be a key geopolitical area, as well as a potential source of conflict between countries. As the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (IEEE) points out, although there is no armed confrontation, the actors interested in the region are constantly demonstrating their pressure. One of the problems with the Arctic, according to the IEEE, is that it lacks an international legal text, as does Antarctica.