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Blinken-Lavrov Meeting Was Productive, State Department Says

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says he wants to have a more predictable, stable relationship with Russia, and he tested that proposition during a 90-minute conversation yesterday in Iceland with Russia's foreign minister. The two men are there for an Arctic Council meeting. NPR's Michele Kelemen joins us now from Iceland's capital, Reykjavik. Michele, a lot of potential for this to be an awkward first meeting; was it?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Not really, nothing like what Blinken's meeting was with his Chinese counterparts early on in the administration. This was kind of no drama, very businesslike. They did their, you know, elbow bumps in front of the cameras and both gave a few remarks at the beginning, and they sounded pretty determined not to let relations get any worse than what they are ready. So Lavrov talked about the need to talk about all issues as long as the conversation is honest and based on mutual respect. Take a listen to some of what Blinken had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: If the leaders of Russia and the United States can work together cooperatively, our people, the world, can be a safer and more secure place. And that's what we seek.

KELEMEN: And his aides say that they discussed plans for a potential summit, though they didn't confirm any of the details on where or when President Biden will meet Vladimir Putin. And they didn't make any real breakthroughs. One official described the meeting as kind of setting the table for more concrete talks on how to move forward in relations.

MARTIN: Why Iceland for this kind of meeting?

KELEMEN: Well, it's interesting, Rachel, because, you know, Russia is taking over the chairmanship of the Arctic Council. The current chair is Iceland. And while the U.S. does have security concerns about Russia's military activities in this region, the Arctic Council is kind of a place where the member countries discuss other things like combating climate change, sustainable development since there are new economic opportunities in the Arctic. And so this is actually one of those rare places where the U.S. and Russia work together.

MARTIN: So Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov say they want to cooperate. They want to make the relationship between the U.S. and Russia better. But what are they tackling? Just how bad is the situation at this point?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, the Biden administration is speaking out more than Trump did on human rights concerns, the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the cyberattacks, Ukraine, and Russia has labeled the U.S. a hostile power. And all of this, Rachel, is kind of spilling down into the day-to-day relationship and even the working of the embassies. Russia doesn't want the U.S. to be allowed to hire local staffers. That kind of cuts into the workings of the embassy and consulates. Lavrov last night made clear he wants more Russian diplomats back at its missions in the U.S. But I was told that they really didn't resolve any of that in their talks here.

MARTIN: What do all those issues you just laid out, what does that mean for the proposed Biden-Putin summit?

KELEMEN: You know, I'd say this administration, like those before it, wants to figure out a way to push back against Russia's bad behavior but work with Russia on things like Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan. And that's a balance that no one's really gotten right with Putin. And the interesting thing is, Rachel, is that Lavrov has seen all of this before. Blinken is the seventh secretary of state that he's dealt with. He's been on this job that long.

MARTIN: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.