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Why the diplomatic meeting between the US and Russia on Thursday was so important

State Secretary Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held their first face-to-face meeting since the invasion of Ukraine on Thursday.

Blinken and his counterpart both attended the G-20 Summit in New Delhi, India.

The call was unexpectedly brief — reportedly lasting about 10 minutes — and there was no significant breakthrough.

But the meeting was still important. Here are four reasons why.

It happened at all

The mere fact that the confab took place between the two foreign ministers is perhaps the most important.

At the very least, it shows that both sides are willing to at least some level of dialogue.

The Russians argued afterwards that Blinken, not Lavrov, had asked for the meeting. But even if so, Lavrov could have turned down the request and didn’t.

In February 2022, it was Blinken who canceled a scheduled meeting with Lavrov when Russia sent troops into eastern Ukraine.

“Now that we see the invasion starting and Russia has made it clear that it rejects diplomacy on a large scale, there is no point in continuing that meeting at this point,” Blinken said in State Department remarks at the time.

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Since then, Blinken and Lavrov have spoken only by phone, most notably last summer during the run-up to the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison.

A face-to-face conversation doesn’t solve anything, but in the carefully choreographed world of diplomacy it still matters.

Blinken again called for the release of Paul Whelan

The fate of Paul Whelan has been a politically vulnerable point for the Biden administration.

Whelan, a former Marine, was arrested in Russia in late 2018 on espionage charges and subsequently convicted. He protests his innocence and the US government agrees.

The fact that Griner was released in early December last year, but Whelan was not, led to accusations that the White House made a bad deal.

The de facto price for Griner’s release was a concession from the United States to release Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer nicknamed “the Merchant of Death”, from prison in this country. Bolt would not be released until 2029.

Critics argued that the Biden administration had given up its influence by releasing Bout without demanding that Whelan also be released.

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After meeting with Lavrov on Thursday, Blinken said the United States had “made a serious proposal” for Whelan’s release and that “Russia should accept it”.

Blinken, predictably, did not go into detail about the nature of the proposal. But it was at least a confirmation for Whelan’s family and supporters that efforts to free him continue.

Push the Kremlin to rejoin the nuclear treaty

The war in Ukraine has had ripple effects in other areas where Russia and the US had previously established some level of cooperation.

One of the most dramatic events occurred late last month, when Russian President Vladimir Putin abruptly announced his withdrawal from his country’s participation in the New START treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement.

Putin did wriggle some hair in the announcement. As the New York Times noted, Putin “made it clear that he was not backing out of the treaty that expires in February 2026. And hours after the speech, Russia’s foreign ministry stated that the country had no intention of deploying more strategic nuclear weapons .”

Still, the move raised fears between the two nations from an already feverish point.

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There is still speculation in some quarters that Russia could use tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield in Ukraine, especially if Putin faces a humiliating defeat.

Blinken on Thursday called the move to New START “irresponsible” and said Russia should “return to” a stance of participation.

Russia downplayed the meeting

The extent to which the Russian side tried to minimize the encounter was remarkable.

A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman acknowledged that the two men had spoken, but categorized the meeting as “neither talks nor a meeting,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

So an attempt to downplay the episode was in addition to the insistence that the conversation had been sought out by Blinken.

Those remarks could betray a defensive stance on the part of the Kremlin over any suggestion that it takes even small, hesitant steps toward peace talks or concessions.

That, in turn, reveals something about the nature of a war now entering its second year, and defies previous predictions that Russian troops would easily sweep to victory.

Laura Kelly contributed.

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