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U.S. and Russia's top diplomats meet at G-20 summit

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken held brief - very brief - talks with his Russian counterpart on the sidelines of a gathering of G-20 nations in India. It's the first face-to-face meeting between the diplomats since Russia's invasion of Ukraine more than a year ago. NPR's Charles Maynes joins us from Moscow to discuss this meeting. So, Charles, how unexpected was this? Can I call it a meeting if it only went 10 minutes?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Well, you know, officials from both countries insisted Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had no intention of speaking to one another in this G-20 meeting, only to end up having a 10-minute exchange, as you note, that Russia's foreign ministry spokeswoman characterized as requested by Blinken and carried out on the move, meaning it was impromptu in between sessions. Now, as you note, this was the first face-to-face exchange since the war started. They've essentially been ducking one another at ministerial meetings around the world over the past year. So 10 minutes isn't much, but I suppose it passes for progress these days.

FADEL: But what actually could have been accomplished? I mean, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia is so bad right now. Even the handshake before the meeting seemed pretty awkward. Do we know what Blinken and Lavrov discussed?

MAYNES: Well, it seems as though this was about Blinken wanting to deliver a message. This exchange came amid an already acrimonious gathering of these G-20 ministers in which divisions over Ukraine dominated proceedings. We don't have any word on Lavrov's reaction, but no surprise, according to the State Department, Blinken told Lavrov the U.S. remained steadfast in its support for Ukraine's sovereignty. I think there's a sense in Washington that Russia believes it can outlast any U.S. commitment to Ukraine for the simple reason that Russia believes the U.S. will move on to the next new thing. You know, while Ukraine is a core issue to Russia's security interests, needless to say, that position in Moscow doesn't give much heed to Ukraine's own security needs.

FADEL: Well, speaking of security, national security, another issue was Russia withdrawing from a nuclear arms control treaty it had with the U.S. Did that come up?

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, Blinken urged Russia to rejoin the New START nuclear arms control treaty, from which Moscow formally suspended participation this week. President Putin - Vladimir Putin, of course, announced he would suspend Russia's participation in a state of the nation address to Parliament last month. Now, New START is the last remaining arms control treaty between the two nuclear superpowers. The two sides really have been bickering over inspections that were initially suspended during the COVID pandemic, but now have gotten caught up in this fallout over Ukraine. Russia's made very clear it links resumption of the treaty with the U.S. backing off in Ukraine. The good news here is that Moscow is suspending participation while intending to abide by the treaty. But of course, there's no way to verify any of that anymore. And there are a lot - there's not a whole lot of trust on either side to do so.

FADEL: Now, Blinken also pressed again for the release of Paul Whelan, an American the U.S. says is wrongfully detained in Russia on espionage charges, right?

MAYNES: Yeah. You know, just to step back, the U.S. has wanted Whelan as part of this prisoner exchange that we saw last December when we saw the release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner.

FADEL: Yeah.

MAYNES: She was exchanged in the end for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, but Russia refused to include Whelan in that deal. Now, according to the State Department, Blinken told Lavrov there was another offer on the table and urged Moscow to take it. What that might be or who in exchange might be for, we just don't know. But clearly, it's a signal from Washington that Whelan is not forgotten.

FADEL: NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow, thanks so much.

MAYNES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.