The U.S. and Russian foreign ministers are meeting in Iceland on Wednesday evening to gauge the enormous gulf between the rival powers and confirm a potential summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.
Statements preceding the face-to-face talks on the sidelines of the Arctic Council meeting in Iceland do not bode well for the de-escalation of tensions that the two say they want, with relations at their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed to want to make the Arctic — a new geopolitical issue at the heart of the regional meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Reykjavik — a laboratory for cooperation focused on common challenges such as the fight against global warming.
But his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov issued a strongly worded warning.
"It has been absolutely clear for everyone for a long time that this is our territory, this is our land," Lavrov said at a press conference in Moscow on Monday.
The Russian foreign minister at the same time accused Norway of "trying to justify the need for NATO to come into the Arctic".
He insisted Russian military activity in the region is "absolutely legal."
- 'Posturing' -
Mikaa Mered, a professor at French university Sciences Po and a specialist on the Arctic, said that Russians "always do this sort of posturing before the ministerial summit, but that doesn't prevent the Council from continuing its work on its traditional consensus issues."
The Russian warning inevitably drew a response from Blinken, who on Tuesday stressed Washington wanted to "avoid a militarisation" of the Arctic.
"We have concerns about some of the increased military activities in the Arctic. That increases the dangers or prospects of accidents," Blinken said, adding that it undermined "the shared goal of a peaceful and sustainable future for the region."
In a post on Twitter later on Tuesday, Blinken condemned "Russia's abuses in Crimea" — while recalling the 77th anniversary of "Stalin's deportation of countless Crimean Tatars from their native peninsula."
The potentially tense sit-down is scheduled for 9:15 pm after an opening dinner of the Arctic Council — which brings together the eight countries bordering the region.
Since taking over the White House in January, President Biden has taken a strong line against Russia, going as far as describing Putin as a "killer" — in sharp contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump, who was accused of complacency towards the Russian leader.
Moscow and Washington have also exchanged harsh accusations and sanctions since the beginning of Biden's term in office.
"We've been very clear that if Russia chooses to take reckless or aggressive actions that target our interests, those of our allies and partners, we'll respond," Blinken said Tuesday.
"Not for the purposes of seeking conflict or escalating, but because such challenges cannot be allowed to go forward with impunity," he continued.
- Face to face -
Meanwhile the top U.S. diplomat cautioned that it was "important to have the opportunity to talk about these things face to face ... to see if there are grounds for a more stable, predictable relationship with Russia."
To this end, Biden and Putin have agreed in principle to hold their first summit, probably in June in a European country in the wake of the G7 summit and NATO leaders' meeting.
Both events are expected to display a united anti-Moscow front.
On Monday, Blinken said he expected the summit to happen in the next few weeks.
Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Riabkov, cautioned on Wednesday that there were still some hurdles to cross.
"We haven't yet agreed on a time or place. Before agreeing on this, we need to fully analyse how the United States views the current agenda," Riabkov said.
A specific date and venue are likely to be announced in the days following the Reykjavik meeting.