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U.S. and Russia's top diplomats meet for the first time since the Ukraine war began

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks to a meeting on the sideline of the G-20 foreign ministers' meeting in New Delhi on March 2
Olivier Douliery
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POOL/AFP via Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks to a meeting on the sideline of the G-20 foreign ministers' meeting in New Delhi on March 2

Updated March 2, 2023 at 10:46 AM ET

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov met briefly on the sidelines of a meeting of the Group of 20 nations in India. It's the first face-to-face interaction between the countries' two top diplomats since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

Relations between the United States and Russia have collapsed over the war, with the U.S. slapping thousands of sanctions on Russia, while militarily, economically and diplomatically supporting Ukraine.

In remarks following the meeting, Blinken said he stressed several main points with Lavrov.

1. Return to the nuclear arms treaty with the U.S.

"I urge Russia to reverse its irresponsible decision and return to implementing the New START treaty, which places verifiable limits on the nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Russian Federation," Blinken said. "Mutual compliance is in the interest of both our countries. It's also what people around the world expect from us as a nuclear powers."

Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended Russia's participation in the New START treaty last month, shortly before the year mark of the invasion. It's the last remaining treaty of its kind between the two countries.

Arms control coordination between the two countries must continue "no matter what else is happening in the world or in our relationship ... just as the United States and the Soviet Union did, even at the height of the Cold War."

2. Release Paul Whelan

Blinken said he reiterated the call for Moscow to accept Washington's proposal to release Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine imprisoned in Russia since 2018.

A Russian court convicted Whelan of espionage charges in 2020 and sentenced him to 16 years in prison. Blinken has previously said "Russian authorities subjected him to a secret trial and sentenced him to 16 years in a Russian penal colony based on secret evidence."

On Thursday, he said, "We're determined to bring Paul and every other American citizen who is unjustly detained around the world home. We won't rest until we do."

3. The U.S. would support Ukraine in diplomacy with Russia

"End this war of aggression, engage in meaningful diplomacy that can produce a just and durable peace," Blinken said he told Lavrov.

He explained that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has put forward a 10-point plan to end the war but accused Moscow of refusing to engage in diplomacy.

"The United States stand ready to support Ukraine through diplomacy to end the war on this basis," he said. "President Putin, however, has demonstrated zero interest in engaging, saying there's nothing to even talk about unless and until Ukraine accepts — and I quote — 'the new territorial realities,' while doubling down on his brutalization of Ukraine."

Moscow says Blinken requested the meeting

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said the meeting was requested by Blinken and held "on the move."

The U.S. State Department said it lasted less than 10 minutes.

The last time Blinken and Lavrov met was in Geneva in January 2022, in the month leading up to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Thursday's news comes after the U.S. announced another large tranche of weapons to Ukraine, and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who was recently in Kyiv, pledged more U.S. economic aid to Ukraine.

India, which holds the rotating chair of the G-20 this year, hoped the war in Ukraine would not dominate proceedings at the meetings of the group's foreign ministers.

The host country instead wants the event to focus on some of the issues more pertinent to the Global South such as climate change, food security, inflation and debt relief.

Charles Maynes reported in Moscow; Raksha Kumar in Bengaluru, India; and Michele Kelemen in Washington.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Raksha Kumar
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.