(CNN) — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday for the first time since the war in Ukraine began more than a year ago.
The brief contact on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Ministers meeting in New Delhi marks a significant moment as high-level engagements between the United States and Russia have become exceedingly rare since the start of the war last February.
Blinken and Lavrov’s meeting comes amid some of the most heightened tensions between Washington and Moscow in decades.
Their conversation took place not only against the backdrop of the ongoing war — and stern warnings to the Chinese about materially supporting Russia’s conflict — but also amid deteriorating bilateral relations. Moscow has suspended its participation in the New START Treaty, the only remaining nuclear arms control agreement between Russia and the US, and it continues to hold American Paul Whelan in what the State Department has deemed as wrongful detention.
Blinken raised those three key issues — the war, New START, and Whelan — in his roughly 10-minute-long engagement with Lavrov, according to a State Department official traveling with the top US diplomat. Blinken was the one to initiate the conversation, the official and Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova both said.
However, the official noted that there aren’t high expectations the meeting will lead to a breakthrough on key issues of tension between the countries.
“I wouldn’t say that coming out of this encounter there was any expectation that things will change in the near term,” the State Department official told the traveling press.
‘End this war of aggression’
Blinken said he called on Russia to “end this war of aggression” and “engage in meaningful diplomacy that can produce a just and durable peace.”
“President Zelensky has put forward a 10 point plan for a just and durable peace. The United States stand ready to support Ukraine through diplomacy to end the war on this basis,” Blinken said at a press conference later Thursday in Delhi.
“President Putin, however, has demonstrated zero interest in engaging, saying there’s nothing to even talk about unless and until Ukraine accepts and I quote ‘the new territorial realities,’ while doubling down on his brutalization of Ukraine.”
The top US diplomat said the message calling on Moscow to cease its war echoed “what I and so many others said last week at the United Nations and what so many G 20 Foreign Ministers said today.”
At the newsconference, Blinken indicated that many of those foreign ministers had also on Thursday raised directly to China their concerns that Beijing will provide lethal assistance to Russia.
Blinken noted that “this is a shared concern” and reiterated that “this would be a serious problem for us in our relationship with China.”
“And I made clear that there would be consequences for engaging in those actions. So I’m not going to detail what they would be. But of course, we have sanctions authorities of various kinds. That would certainly be one of the things that we and others would look at,” he said.
‘Serious proposal’ to release Paul Whelan
Blinken said that in his conversation with Lavrov, he “raised the wrongful detention of Paul Whelan as I have on many previous occasions.”
“The United States has put forward a serious proposal. Moscow should accept it,” he said.
Whelan, a former US Marine who is a US, Irish, British and Canadian citizen, was detained at a Moscow hotel in December 2018 by Russian authorities who alleged he was involved in an intelligence operation. He was convicted and sentenced in June 2020 to 16 years in prison in a trial US officials denounced as unfair.
In December 2022, the US secured the freedom of another wrongfully detained American, Brittney Griner, in a prisoner swap, but US officials said that Moscow refused to accept the deal to release Whelan as well.
Elizabeth Whelan, Paul Whelan’s sister, told CNN following Blinken’s exchange with Lavrov that “of course, we are pleased to see Paul’s case elevated in this manner, and take a great deal of comfort in the fact that the Secretary of State continues to press for a solution to Paul’s wrongful detention.”
David Whelan that the mention of his brother “at such a rare engagement between the Secretary of State and Foreign Minister” was appreciated.
“It reinforces our sense that the White House continues to advocate for Paul, even if we do not always see the activity,” he told CNN.
‘Urged Russia to reverse its irresponsible decision’ on New START
The top US diplomat also “urged Russia to reverse its irresponsible decision and return to implementing the New START treaty, which places verifiable limits on the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Russian Federation.”
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would stop participating in the key arms control agreement, and signed a law formally suspending participation it in on Tuesday.
“Mutual compliance is in the interest of both our countries. It’s also what people around the world expect from us as a nuclear powers,” Blinken said.
“I told the foreign minister that, no matter what else is happening in the world or in our relationship, the United States will always be ready to engage and act on strategic arms control, just as the United States and Soviet Union did even at the height of the Cold War,” he added.
The brief sidelines engagement between Blinken and Lavrov was their first face-to-face encounter in more than a year. They last met in person in Geneva last January — just weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Blinken and Lavrov were both present at several meetings together over the past year, but had not spoken with each other on those occasions.
And as recently as Wednesday, Blinken suggested he would not meet with his Russian counterpart at the meeting in the Indian capital.
“No plans to see either at the G20, although I suspect that we’ll certainly be in group sessions of one kind or another together,” Blinken said at a press conference Wednesday, referencing both Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
The two spoke by phone last July for the first time since the start of the war. In that “frank and direct conversation,” Blinken said he “pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.”
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