Blinken, Lavrov meet for first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday that he urged his Russian counterpart to begin serious discussions to end the war in Ukraine and to return to implementing a nuclear arms treaty with the U.S.

“I told the foreign minister … `End this war of aggression. Engage in meaningful diplomacy that can produce a just and durable peace,'” Blinken said at a news conference during a Group of 20 summit in India.

The surprise encounter between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was theirfirst since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago.  The discussion lasted 10 minutes, according to White House spokesman John Kirby.

“It was an opportunity that Secretary Blinken took advantage of,” he said.

Russia’s foreign ministry denied the top diplomats held a one-on-one meeting.

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 Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed in a statement provided to Russian state media that the meeting “could not have taken place” because of the “position of the U.S.,” which she said was “in favor of escalating conflicts” globally.

Blinken and Lavrov last had direct contact last summer, when they spoke by phone about a U.S. proposal for Russia to release U.S. detainees Paul Whelan and formerly detained WNBA star Brittney Griner. Griner was released in a prisoner swap in December. Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, has been imprisoned since 2018.

What did Blinken and Lavrov discuss?

  • Ukraine war: Blinken said Ukraine has put forward a peace plan, but Russian President Vladimir Putin has “demonstrated zero interest in engaging” unless Ukraine gives up territory. 
  • Nuclear arms treaty: Blinken said he urged Russia to return to implementing the New START Treaty, which limits the number of long-range nuclear warheads that Russia and the U.S. can have. “Mutual compliance is in the interest of both our countries,” Blinken told reporters. “It’s also what people around the world expect from us as nuclear powers.”
  • Paul Whelan: Blinken said Moscow should accept the U.S. proposal to release Whelan, a former corporate security executive who was convicted of espionage after a closed-door trial in 2020 and is serving a 16-year sentence at a labor camp in Russia. The U.S. has declared him wrongfully detained.

Why is a meeting between the U.S. and Russia important?

The U.S. is leading the world in keeping up its support for Ukraine as the war moves into its second year with no end in sight.  At the same time, the repercussions of a move away from the START treaty is significant, and the U.S. wants to keep Russia engaged on that front.

If the last remaining arms treaty between the world’s two largest nuclear powers collapses, there will be no limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear forces for the first time since the 1970s. The risks of a nuclear launch – intentional or otherwise – would rise.

Without arms control, the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals could double in size, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Blinken said he told Lavrov that regardless of what else is happening, the U.S. will always be ready to engage on arms control, just as it did with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.