The meeting between the two diplomats lasted less than ten minutes. Factor in time for translation on both sides and the substance amounted to perhaps half of that. But then the encounter between Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, on the side-lines of the G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi today (2 March) was not intended to yield a meaningful exchange of views.
Blinken said afterwards that he had delivered three messages to the Russian foreign minister: reverse Russia’s “irresponsible decision” to suspend participation in the New Start strategic arms control treaty; free Paul Whelan, a US citizen who has been detained in Russia for more than four years; and “end this war of aggression” against Ukraine. It was their first face-to-face meeting since the start of that war last year. Blinken said nothing about Lavrov’s response.
“I wouldn’t say that coming out of this encounter there was any expectation that things will change in the near term,” a US state department official later commented.
Meanwhile, Russia’s foreign ministry denied that it had even been a meeting. “There were no negotiations, meetings and so on,” Maria Zakharova, the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman, told reporters, confirming merely that there had been a brief encounter “on the go” during the summit at Blinken’s request. Lavrov made no mention of any discussion with Blinken during his press conference, which he used to taunt Western officials’ failure to isolate Russia since the start of the war.
“We aren’t feeling isolated,” Lavrov gloated. “It’s the West that has isolated itself, and it will eventually come to realise it.” He also chided the US for its warnings to China, which Blinken reiterated in New Delhi, against arming Russia. “Our Western colleagues have lost self-control, forgotten their manners and put diplomacy aside, switching exclusively to blackmail and threats.” Even by Lavrov’s low standards, this was an extraordinarily hypocritical statement given his own country’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and repeated nuclear blackmail over the past year.
The whole encounter was symptomatic of what high-level diplomacy between the US and Russia has been reduced to: brief meetings in third countries where the key diplomats exchange talking points, rather than engaging in substantive discussions. The same dynamic was evident when Blinken met China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, at the Munich Security Conference on 18 February, although in that case the two sides at least seem to have sat down. Domestic political considerations on all sides increasingly count against giving ground on anything if it could be viewed as a concession, encouraging tough rhetoric and being seen to stand your ground.
Blinken invoked the memory of the Cold War during his own press conference as he urged Russia to resume talks on arms control. “No matter what else is happening in the world, in our relationship, the United States is always ready to engage and act on strategic arms control, just as the United States and the Soviet Union did even at the height of the Cold War.”
Yet, unlike during the Cold War, neither Russia nor China show any interest in serious discussions with the US on bilateral arms control, particularly with regard to nuclear weapons.
The other key point to draw from these diplomatic encounters is that, as uncomfortable as it is to admit, Lavrov was right about one thing. Russia is not as isolated as the West had hoped it would be a year ago. That the Russian foreign minister is still strolling the corridors of G20 meetings, as Vladimir Putin could well be at the leaders’ summit in New Delhi later this year, shows the limits of international will, even among democracies, to disengage from Russia, let alone hold its officials to account.
The foreign ministers’ meeting broke up having failed to reach a consensus on a communiqué. The assembled diplomats could not agree on how to refer to the war against Ukraine. As much as the brevity of the encounter between Lavrov and Blinken, the glaring absence of a united response by the world’s largest economies to Russia’s aggression augurs more difficult days ahead. If we are now entering a new Cold War, it will be even more fraught and more complex to navigate than the decades-long crisis of the last century.
[See also: From the NS archive: Britain, Russia and the Cold War]