U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked briefly Thursday at a meeting of top diplomats from the Group of 20 nations in the first high-level meeting in months between the two countries. U.S. officials said Blinken and Lavrov chatted for roughly 10 minutes on the sidelines of the G-20 conference in New Delhi. The short encounter came as relations between Washington and Moscow have plummeted over Russia’s war on Ukraine.
A senior U.S. official said Blinken used the discussion to make three points to Lavrov: That the U.S. would support Ukraine in the conflict for as long as it takes to bring the war to an end, that Russia should reverse its decision to suspend participation in the New START nuclear treaty and that Moscow should release detained American Paul Whelan.
The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation, said Blinken had “disabused” Lavrov of any idea Moscow might have that U.S. support for Ukraine was wavering.
The official declined to characterize Lavrov’s response but said Blinken did not get the impression there would be any change in Russia’s behavior in the near term.
Russia offered no immediate comment on the substance of the conversation, but Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said Blinken had asked to speak to Lavrov.
It was the two senior diplomats’ first contact since last summer, when Blinken called Lavrov by phone about a U.S. proposal for Russia to release Whelan and formerly detained WNBA star Brittney Griner. Griner was later released in a swap for imprisoned Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout but Whelan remains detained in Russia after being accused of spying.
The last time Blinken and Lavrov met in person was in Geneva, Switzerland, in January 2022 on the eve of Russia’s invasion. At that meeting, Blinken warned Lavrov about consequences Russia would face if it went ahead with its planned military operation but also sought to address some complaints that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made about the U.S. and NATO.
Those talks proved inconclusive, and Russia moved ahead with its plans to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Blinken then canceled a scheduled follow-up meeting with Lavrov that had bee set for just two days before Moscow eventually invaded on Feb. 24, 2022.
The two men have attended several international conferences together since the war began, notably the last G-20 foreign ministers’ meeting in Bali, Indonesia, last year, but had not come face-to-face until Thursday.
CBS News correspondent Imtiaz Tyab reported Thursday from Kyiv that all eyes quickly shifted to China’s foreign minister, who met later on the sidelines of the same G-20 gathering with Lavrov. After their meeting, China’s foreign ministry released a statement which shed no new light on whether Beijing might answer Moscow’s request for lethal support in the form of weapons or ammunition for Putin’s war.
U.S. officials have said Beijing is considering adding such support to its current non-lethal aid for Russia’s war machine, but China has not given any indication of its plans. Last week, Beijing published a vague 12-point plan to end the war in Ukraine, but Putin said “now was not the time” for such discussions.
In its statement on the meeting held Thursday by Qin Gang, China’s second-highest ranking diplomat, with Lavrov, the Chinese Foreign ministry said Beijing continued to oppose “sabotage of peace talks… sanctions and pressure.”
“China supports all efforts conducive to persuading peace and promoting talks, and will continue to play a constructive role in this regard,” the statement said, adding: “Lavrov appreciated China’s objective and fair position and constructive role, and said that Russia has always been open to negotiations and dialogue.”
Amid the geopolitical maneuvering, Tyab said the war was still raging, with particularly intense fighting in and around the eastern Ukrainian mining town of Bakhmut. Russian forces, aided by Wagner Group mercenaries, have mounted a massive offensive which has seen at least one Ukrainian military unit pull out of the area, but Ukrainian troops continue to hold at least some of the city.
Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have described the situation there as “extremely tense.”
Russian and Russian-backed forces have been trying to seize control of Bakhmut, which was once home to 70,000 people but now lays largely in ruins, for seven months. If they succeed, it will be a rare territorial gain for the Kremlin after months of grisly but largely futile fighting. While it would be a hugely symbolic achievement for Moscow, the strategic value of Bakhmut remains an open question.
While controlling the town could enable Russian forces in other areas of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region more easily resupply, some military analysts have said the strategic importance of the decimated city is far from clear, and there have been many questions over why the Kremlin has invested so much blood and treasure in its campaign there.
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