In First Wartime Meeting, Blinken Confronts His Russian Counterpart

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said he demanded on Thursday that Russia end its war on Ukraine when he and his Russian counterpart held the first private, face-to-face exchange between a U.S. cabinet member and a top Kremlin official since the invasion.

The unscheduled encounter with Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, at an international conference in New Delhi showed that the Biden administration saw a need to reestablish in-person diplomatic contacts with Moscow so the two governments can discuss the year-old war as well as issues beyond it.

Mr. Blinken said at a news conference on Thursday night that in addition to calling for Russia to halt its “war of aggression” in Ukraine, he told Mr. Lavrov that Russia should return to the New START nuclear arms control treaty it withdrew from last month and comply with its terms. And he once again urged Moscow to free Paul Whelan, an American citizen who the State Department says is wrongfully imprisoned on espionage charges.

The meeting with Mr. Lavrov, which lasted less than 10 minutes, occurred on the sidelines of a gathering here of top diplomats from the Group of 20 nations representing the world’s largest economies. In the morning, Mr. Blinken said in a group session that was also attended by Mr. Lavrov and Qin Gang, the foreign minister of China, that the countries had to continue to call on Russia to “withdraw from Ukraine for the sake of international peace and economic stability.”

The encounter came at a critical moment in the largest and most destructive conflict in Europe since World War II. Both sides are marshaling more troops and weapons for planned spring offensives, hoping to score decisive breakthroughs. Russian troops are closing in on the besieged city of Bakhmut, Ukraine, amid heavy casualties, but there has been little recent movement on the battlefield.

At the Group of 20 meeting, Russia and China, its strongest partner, blocked the foreign ministers from issuing a consensus communiqué at the end of the conference, arguing against lines that criticized Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Instead, the group released a somewhat lower-level statement that reflected the fact that 18 of the 20 nations condemned the invasion, showing that even some countries with an officially neutral stance — India, Indonesia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia among them — were willing to tilt against Russia in some settings. At a meeting in Bali in November, President Biden and other Group of 20 leaders agreed to a document with the same critical language.

Russian officials said Mr. Blinken had sought out the meeting with Mr. Lavrov, although Mr. Blinken told reporters a day earlier, before he flew from Uzbekistan to India, that he had no plans to meet at the conference with Mr. Lavrov or Mr. Qin. Mr. Blinken did not meet with his Chinese counterpart on Thursday.

The meeting between Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Blinken does not signal any movement toward starting talks on ending the war in Ukraine. Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said that “there were no negotiations” between the two men, according to Interfax, a Russian state news agency.

On Wednesday, Mr. Blinken said at a news conference in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, that the Biden administration saw “zero evidence” that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was serious about beginning substantial negotiations.

In reality, he said on Thursday, Mr. Putin is “doubling down on his brutalization of Ukraine.” Mr. Blinken reiterated that Mr. Putin was the one person who could meet the conditions for peace — by fully withdrawing from Ukraine.

President Biden and his aides say their goal for now is to keep giving Ukraine military aid to repel Russia and take back Ukrainian territory, and that any peace talks, an idea that China and a few other nations are pushing, are a distraction to help Mr. Putin try to solidify his gains and continue his assaults in Ukraine. Mr. Blinken told Mr. Lavrov that the United States was committed to defending Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” a senior State Department official said.

There was no indication that Mr. Lavrov addressed Mr. Blinken’s demands. But at a United Nations Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, a Russian official repeated Moscow’s reasons for suspending participation in the New START treaty. The Russian envoy, Sergey Ryabkov, accused the United States and its European allies of trying to “strategically defeat” Russia and of aiding Ukraine in order to attack Russian strategic sites identified under the treaty.

Mr. Blinken brought up the war in other private meetings during the conference. When he spoke with Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, the Indian foreign minister, the two “discussed how to mitigate the global impacts of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine” and “the United States and India’s cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” the State Department said in a statement. The second phrase is a reference to strategic efforts in Asia, including military coordination, to counter China.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who has been proud of his ability to bring the series of Group of 20 meetings to his country this year, expressed some disappointment that the war was dominating the conversations. His comment was a sign of weariness with the war and its impact across the globe.

In an opening video address to the diplomats, Mr. Modi said that while he understood that discussions “are affected by the geopolitical tensions of the day” — a clear reference to the war — he hoped the participants would keep the focus on global crises affecting the many developing nations of the world. He cited economic downturns, climate change and the pandemic.

Mr. Modi and other leaders in Asia and Africa have expressed growing frustration over the economic effects of the war, including surging food and energy prices. Mr. Blinken heard about some of those concerns during his visits this week to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — the first by any Biden cabinet official to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, which Moscow sees as within its sphere of influence.

The Group of 20 officials, including Mr. Lavrov and Mr. Qin, did all agree to language in the final declaration saying the countries would try to improve and continue the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allows cargo ships carrying Ukrainian grain to pass through a Russian naval blockade. The blockade had contributed to food shortages and rising prices around the world, which eased after the deal, brokered by Turkey and the United Nations, took effect in July.

That agreement expires in March, but Mr. Lavrov’s consent to the statement about it in the declaration hinted that Moscow might agree to renew it. However, U.S. officials say Russia is still slowing the shipments by hobbling inspections that occur when the ships reach Istanbul.

Since the war began, the U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, has spoken by phone a few times with Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu. But Mr. Blinken and Mr. Lavrov have had just one such call, last summer, about a U.S. government offer to Russia to free Mr. Whelan and Brittney Griner, Americans who the Biden administration says were wrongfully convicted and imprisoned in Russia.

In December, the United States released Viktor Bout, an imprisoned Russian weapons dealer, in exchange for Ms. Griner, a basketball star sentenced to nine years in a labor camp for cannabis possession. The Biden administration has continued to press Russia to free Mr. Whelan.

Mr. Blinken and Mr. Lavrov have been in other international meetings together and sat in the same room over the past year. But they have usually avoided each other, as they did at a Group of 20 meeting last summer in Bali, Indonesia, and at a meeting of foreign ministers of Southeast Asian nations and partners in Cambodia.

Last month, at a meeting in India of Group of 20 finance ministers, the U.S. Treasury secretary, Janet L. Yellen, confronted Russian officials in a group meeting and said they had a “moral imperative” to end the war. She also told them they were “complicit in Putin’s atrocities.”

At the Thursday news conference, Mr. Blinken repeated his warning that China was considering supplying weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine. He said officials from U.S. allies and partner nations had confronted Chinese counterparts over this, including here at the New Delhi conference. And he said the United States and those countries could impose economic sanctions “of various kinds” if China were to send weapons.

The top diplomats from a partnership of Asia-Pacific nations called the Quad — the United States, India, Japan and Australia — are scheduled to meet on Friday. One country is expected to dominate that conversation: China.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from New Delhi, and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.

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