Lavrov is on Blinken’s list of people to call

Russian FM Sergey Lavrov rounded off a tour of African states in a blaze of media publicity despite US hopes to “isolate” him

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a press availability at the State Department on Wednesday made the dramatic announcement that he intends to speak to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov “in the coming days … for the first time since the war began” in Ukraine on February 24. 

Interestingly, he gave an alibi that harks back to the Soviet era — prisoner exchange. 

The US is offering a swap of a Russian entrepreneur Viktor Bout, who was arrested in Thailand in 2008 on a US warrant and later convicted to 25 years in prison on charges of weapons trafficking, in exchange for Brittney Griner, a basketball star who has been detained at Moscow airport on drug charges and, importantly, Paul Whelan, an ex-US Marine, who was arrested in Russia in 2018 and sentenced to 16 years in prison two years later on charges of espionage. 

Whelan surely was a prize catch for the Russians. The American ambassador in Moscow had been visiting him in prison.

Blinken also added a second topic he’d like to discuss with Lavrov —implementation of the recent “grain deal”. Washington played no role in negotiating the deal and is presumably hoping to make a lateral entry into the matrix now. Blinken claimed he is “seeing and hearing around the world a desperate need for food, a desperate need for prices to decrease.  And if we can help through our direct diplomacy encourage the Russians to make good on the commitments they’ve made, that will help people around the world, and I’m determined to do it.” 

Interestingly, in a veiled reference to the US, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavuсoglu stated Wednesday on broadcaster Tv100 that there were countries who “wanted to block” the grain deal between Russia and Turkey, who want the Ukraine conflict “to prolong”, as they think the longer Moscow’s special military operation continues, “the weaker Russia will be.” 

Fair enough. Blinken then came to the real purpose of his forthcoming call with Lavrov — “the plans that Russia now has to pursue the annexation of Ukrainian territory.” 

Blinken repeated the hyperbole that sanctions are having “a powerful and also growing effect” and has “weakened Russia profoundly” and the Biden administration will do all that it can “to strengthen Ukraine’s position on the battlefield so it has the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.” 

However, what comes through is the growing disquiet in Washington that to its utter disbelief, the Russian stance has only hardened lately. Blinken said it is “causing alarms.” In particular, he noted Lavrov’s remark last week that the Kremlin’s goals in Ukraine had expanded. “Now they seek to claim more Ukrainian territory, beyond the Donbas,” he commented.  

Indeed, the war has spun out of US algorithm. As Hungarian PM Orban pointed out last week, anti-Russian sanctions “have not shaken Moscow,” but Europe has already lost four governments and is in an economic and political crisis. 

Russia is paying back to the US and NATO in the same coin that the latter did when they dismembered Yugoslavia. The NATO’s war in Yugoslavia came at a time when Russia was weak and it helplessly watched the West carving up a fellow Slavic country. 

Russia will not be deterred now, as it is already past the mid-stream. Blinken noted frantically, “I think it’s very important now that we see what Russia’s next plan is – that is, the annexation of more Ukrainian territory – that the Russians, Foreign Minister Lavrov, hear directly from me on behalf of the United States that we see what they’re doing, we know what they’re doing, and we will never accept it. It will never be legitimised.  There will always be consequences if that’s what they do and that’s what they try to sustain.” 

However, the paradox is, the initiative still lies with the US. Russian army will move deeper into Ukraine in proportion to the US’ supply of advanced weapons with long reach into Russian territory. But Moscow is interested only so that Russian territory is safe from any attack from Ukraine.

It is the Biden administration’s choice to extend the duration of the war or escalate the scope of the Russian operation. Washington made a catastrophic mistake to torpedo the Russian-Ukrainian deal stuck in April in Istanbul when Kiev agreed to settle for the modest Russian demands.

But those were halcyon days when US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin quipped — with Blinken by his side — after a quick trip to Kiev that the US wanted to see Russia “weakened to the degree that it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Austin boasted that Russia had “already lost a lot of military capability” and “a lot of its troops. We want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.” 

Hearing Austin’s battle cry, Blinken chipped in: “The strategy that we’ve put in place, the massive support for Ukraine, the massive pressure against Russia, in solidarity with more than 30 countries engaged in these efforts, is having real results. And we’re seeing that when it comes to Russian war aims.”

“Russia is failing. Ukraine is succeeding,” Blinken claimed. Now, that triumphalism was no there in Blinken’s performance yesterday. 

A great beauty about press conferences is that some journalists make it lively and revealing. So, one American journalist asked Blinken, “you have been talking about how Russia is isolated internationally, and yet we see Foreign Minister Lavrov jetting off around Africa and the Middle East and President Putin going to Tehran… They make the case that they’re not isolated, and now you’re about to have this conversation with them.  So what does that say about the administration’s efforts to isolate Russia when you are actually now reaching out to them to talk about the issues?”  

Blinken’s explanation: “Matt, in terms of some of the travels that the foreign minister, for example, is engaged in, what I see is a desperate game of defence to try somehow to justify to the world the actions that Russia has taken…” 

Yet, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell bitterly complained yesterday, “Lavrov visits to try to convince Africans that European sanctions are to blame for everything that is happening … and the entire western press repeats this. When I’m going to Africa to say the opposite, that sanctions have nothing to do with it, no one picks it up!” 

The spectre of the collapse of EU economies is rattling the Biden Administration. A CNN report yesterday was titled US officials say ‘biggest fear’ has come true as Russia cuts gas supplies to Europe. It said the Biden administration “is working furiously behind the scenes to keep European allies united” as the blowback from the sanctions against Russia hits them  and the “impact on Europe could boomerang back onto the US, spiking natural gas and electricity prices.” 

The report quoted an unnamed US official saying Russia’s retaliation for western sanctions has put the West in “unchartered territory.” Suffice to say, Blinken’s call underscores the desperate urgency in Washington to open a line of communication to Moscow at the political level. 

How this volte-face plays out in European capitals, especially Kiev remains to be seen. Blinken led the western boycott of Lavrov at the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bali as recently as July 7-8. President Biden extended a glamorous welcome to Zelensky’s wife Olena Zelenska to the White House who was on a high-profile visit last week, even as Blinken was preparing his stunning announcement.