Relations between the US and Russia have taken a tentative step forward after the Kremlin welcomed a decision by the Biden administration not to impose significant sanctions on a controversial Russian pipeline delivering gas to Germany.
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, on Thursday hailed what he called “positive steps” in ties with Washington, ahead of a face-to-face summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, due to take place in Europe in the next few weeks.
On Wednesday, the first high-level discussions between Moscow and Washington since Biden took office were held in Reykjavik.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, held their first face-to-face encounter on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in the Icelandic capital, a city with a deep history in US-Russian relations.
“We seek a predictable, stable relationship with Russia,” Blinken told Lavrov, echoing previous comments made by Biden. “We think that’s good for our people, good for Russian people and indeed good for the world,” he said.
He added: “It’s also no secret that we have our differences and when it comes to those differences … if Russia acts aggressively against us, our partners, and our allies, we’ll respond. 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.”
The Biden administration had earlier signalled it would take a tough line on Nord Stream 2, a Moscow-led project that will export gas directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.
However, earlier this week the White House said it would waive sanctions on the main German company behind the pipeline and its German chief executive, Matthias Warnig, a former Stasi officer who worked with Putin, then a KGB operative, in the East German city of Dresden.
The US administration’s approach has attracted criticism from opponents of the Kremlin and from leading Republicans. Senator Marco Rubio called the waiver “naive, deceitful and weak”, the Washington Post reported, and Senator Ben Sasse said it gave Putin “massive strategic leverage in Europe”.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, on Thursday reacted positively. In an interview she said Biden “has now moved towards us a bit on the Nord Stream 2 conflict”. Merkel held out the prospect of further talks with the US to intensify economic ties.
The Biden administration this week imposed sanctions on eight Russian companies and vessels involved in the pipeline. But these measures notified to Congress are unlikely to stop its completion this summer.
Speaking after his meeting with Blinken, Lavrov described their discussion as “constructive and useful”, saying both sides understood the need to mend ties.
He added: “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 normalisation.
“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 almost diametrically opposed positions for the meeting, previewing what was likely to be a difficult and contentious exchange over myriad issues including Ukraine, the Arctic, Russia’s treatment of the opposition figure Alexei Navalny, and accusations of cyber malfeasance, including claims Russia-based hackers were responsible for a ransomware attack on a US pipeline.
The meeting also followed a spate of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions as US-Russia relations threatened to return to cold war lows.
After the meeting, which ran for a longer-than-expected hour and 45 minutes, the US state department said Blinken had called for Russia to release two Americans it holds, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. He also raised “deep concerns” about Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border and its actions against the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the department said.