Why Thursday’s US-Russia diplomatic meeting was so important

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held their first in-person meeting since the invasion of Ukraine on Thursday.

Blinken and his opposite number were both attending the G-20 summit in New Delhi, India.

The conversation was unexpected but brief — it reportedly lasted around 10 minutes — and there was no significant breakthrough.

But the meeting was still important. Here are four reasons why.

It happened at all

The mere fact that the confab between the two foreign ministers happened may be the most significant thing about it.

It shows, at a minimum, that both sides are at least willing to engage in some level of dialogue.

The Russians contended afterward that Blinken, not Lavrov, had asked for the meeting. But even if that is so, Lavrov could have rebuffed the request and didn’t.

Back in February 2022, it was Blinken who canceled a scheduled meeting with Lavrov as Russia sent troops into eastern Ukraine. 

“Now that we see the invasion is beginning, and Russia has made clear its wholesale rejection of diplomacy, it does not make sense to go forward with that meeting at this time,” Blinken said in remarks from the State Department then.

Since then, Blinken and Lavrov have only spoken on the phone, notably last summer during the lead-up to the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison.

A face-to-face conversation doesn’t resolve anything, but in the carefully choreographed world of diplomacy it is still significant.

Blinken again called for the release of Paul Whelan

The fate of Paul Whelan has been a political point of vulnerability for the Biden administration.

Whelan, a former Marine, was arrested in Russia in late 2018, accused of spying and subsequently convicted. He protests his innocence and the U.S. government agrees.

The fact that Griner was released in early December last year, but Whelan was not, led to charges that the White House had made a bad deal. 

The de facto price of Griner’s release was a concession by the United States to let Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” out of prison in this country. Bout had not been due for release until 2029.

Critics argued that the Biden administration had given up its leverage by allowing Bout out without demanding Whelan also be released. 

After the Thursday meeting with Lavrov, Blinken said that the United States had “put forward a serious proposal” for Whelan’s release and that “Russia should take it.”

Blinken, predictably, didn’t go into detail about the nature of the proposal. But it was at least an affirmation for Whelan’s family and supporters that efforts to free him are continuing.

Pressure for the Kremlin to reengage with nuclear treaty

The war in Ukraine has had ripple effects in other areas where Russia and the U.S. had previously managed some level of cooperation.

One of the most dramatic instances came late last month, when Russian President Vladimir Putin abruptly announced he was withdrawing his nation’s participation from the New START treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement.

Putin did split some hairs in the announcement. As The New York Times noted, Putin “made clear that he was not pulling out of the treaty which expires in February 2026. And hours after the speech, Russia’s Foreign Ministry declared the country had no intention to deploy more strategic nuclear arms.”

All the same, the move increased anxiety between the two nations from an already-febrile point. 

There is still speculation in some quarters that Russia could use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine, especially if Putin was facing a humiliating defeat.

Blinken on Thursday called the move on New START “irresponsible” and said that Russia should “return to” a stance of participation.

Russia downplayed the meeting

The degree to which the Russian side sought to minimize the meeting was notable.

A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman acknowledged that the two men had spoken but categorized the encounter as “neither talks nor a meeting,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

This attempt to downplay the episode was in addition to the insistence that the conversation had been sought out by Blinken.

Those remarks could betray a defensiveness on the Kremlin’s part about any suggestion that it is taking even tiny, halting steps toward peace talks or concessions.

That, in turn, reveals something about the nature of a war that has now entered its second year — defying early predictions that Russian forces would easily sweep to victory.

Laura Kelly contributed.

Tags Antony Blinken Antony Blinken Blinken Brittney Griner Lavrov Paul Whelan President Joe Biden russia Russia Russia-Ukraine war Sergey Lavrov Sergey Lavrov ukraine US-Russia relations Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin

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