US-Russia showdown looms as top diplomats meet in Iceland

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pauses during a joint press conference following meetings with the Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Blinken is touting the Biden administration's abrupt shift in its predecessor's climate policies as he visits Iceland for talks with senior officials from the world's Arctic nations. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)

REYKJAVIK – Top diplomats from the United States and Russia are set to square off in Iceland for their first face-to-face encounter that comes as ties between the nations have deteriorated sharply in recent months.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russia’s longtime Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plan to talk in person on Wednesday on the sidelines of an Arctic Council meeting in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik, a city with deep history in U.S.-Russian relations.

The meeting is set to take place just as the Biden administration plans to announce new sanctions on Russia over a controversial European pipeline. The administration is expected to hit eight Russian companies and vessels with penalties for their involvement in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, while sparing two German entities from similar penalties, according to congressional aides and the German government.

Even before Wednesday's talks — that are ostensibly to prepare for a summit between President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin next month — the two diplomats laid down near diametrically opposed positions for the meeting, previewing what is likely to be a difficult and contentious exchange.

This follows a spate of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions as U.S.-Russian relations threaten a return to Cold War lows. The nuclear powers are at odds on myriad issues including Ukraine, the Arctic, Russia's treatment of opposition figure Alexey Navalny and accusations of cyber malfeasance, including claims that Russia-based hackers were responsible for a ransomware attack on a key U.S. pipeline.

"It would be our preference to have a more stable and more predictable relationship with Russia,” Blinken said Tuesday. “At the same time, we’ve been very clear that if Russia chooses to take reckless or aggressive actions that target our interests or those of our allies and partners, we’ll respond. Not for purposes of seeking conflict or escalating but because such challenges cannot be allowed to go forward with impunity.”

Blinken also tweeted Tuesday U.S. condemnation of Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. “We condemn Russia’s abuses in Crimea, especially on May 18 as we reflect on the 77th anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of countless Crimean Tatars from their native peninsula,” he posted.

Perhaps anticipating Blinken's position and the expected sanctions announcement, Lavrov had offered a prebuttal at a news conference Monday in Moscow.