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Can the U.S. have "a stable and more predictable relationship with Russia"?

Former ambassador on U.S.-Russia relationship
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine on the U.S.-Russia relationship 08:17

Moscow — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov were set to face off late Wednesday in the first high-level meeting between Russian and American officials under the Biden administration. They will meet as relations between the two rival powers hover near Cold War-lows.

"It would be our preference to have a more stable and more predictable relationship with Russia," Blinken said the day before the meeting.

"If these are stable and predictable sanctions, then it's probably not what we need, and we won't be judging the U.S. calls to normalize relations by their words," Lavrov responded a few hours later in Moscow, reiterating a common Russian complaint that the U.S. relies too heavily on economic punishment for its foreign policy.

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The two senior diplomats have a long list of hurdles to address, including Russia's treatment of jailed opposition figure Alexey Navalny, recent saber-rattling near the Ukrainian border and sanctions that Washington hit Russia with recently over alleged interference in U.S. elections and hacking attacks on American infrastructure. 

The meeting on the sidelines of the Arctic Council summit in Iceland on Wednesday was likely to make or break a highly anticipated summit between President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, which is expected to take place in June in Europe, if it does in fact go ahead.

Bilateral relations were already fraught when they nose-dived in March, after Mr. Biden agreed with a description of Putin as "a killer." Envoys in both countries were recalled to their home capitals for consultations. Washington then imposed new sanctions over "malign" activities, denied by the Kremlin, leading to another wave of diplomatic expulsions.

Biden Russia Holdout
In this March 10, 2011 file photo, then-Vice President of the United States Joe Biden shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Russia added the U.S. to a new "list of unfriendly" nations, preventing the U.S. Embassy from employing local staff.

The White House first floated the idea of a presidential summit last month in an apparent move to restore some lines of communication. The Kremlin said it was considering the offer, but it hasn't publicly confirmed that the meeting will take place.

Despite the increasingly adversarial relations, however, Russia has signaled that it sees issues like nuclear arms control and strategic stability as areas of mutual interest on which the two nations might cooperate.

The Kremlin on Wednesday signaled that Putin would be willing to look past Mr. Biden's previous comments if the meeting does take place this summer.

"This incident is not the main thing," the Russian leader's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Wednesday. "We are talking about strategic stability — it worries the whole world, it concerns the whole world, and our bilateral relations. These are the main topics on the agenda."

Russian officials also responded positively to U.S. media reports suggesting the Biden administration has decided against sanctioning the company in charge of the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, stretching from Russia to Germany to enable easier Russian gas sales to Europe. The U.S. had previously slammed the project as a threat to European energy security.

Mr. Biden and Putin had an early success, prolonging the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty for five more years when the fate of the pact — the only remaining nuclear treaty between the two atomic bomb-wielding countries — hung in the balance early in Mr. Biden's tenure.

Now Russia says it wants to get the U.S. back into other agreements that were severed during the four years of the Trump administration, including the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) and the Open Skies Treaty.

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"The return of the United States to the JCPOA is the main, key issue from our point of view, which requires a solution," Lavrov's deputy, Sergey Ryabkov, said Wednesday ahead of the meeting in Iceland.

Russia's ambitious economic and military plans for its northern territories have also emerged as a growing point of contention with the U.S., as Russia takes over from Iceland as the rotating chair of the Arctic Council.

Ahead of the Reykjavik summit, Blinken criticized Russia's military buildup in the Arctic region and its "unlawful maritime claims" after Moscow obliged foreign vessels transiting the so-called "Northern Route," the shipping passage around the country's northern coastline, to obtain permission and let Russian maritime officers board the vessels as they go through.

Lavrov rebuked the statement, saying Moscow considers the region "its own land," and that Russia has the right to ensure the security of its northern coastline. 

CBS News' Svetlana Berdnikova contributed to this report.

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