U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the global community Tuesday to avoid militarizing the Arctic region, one day after Russia warned the West against making territorial claims in the area.
Blinken is in Reykjavik, Iceland, for talks on climate change and to take part in an Arctic Council ministerial meeting.
The United States has previously accused Russia of requiring foreign ships to seek permission to pass through the region and to allow Russian maritime pilots to board the vessels while threating violence against noncompliant ships.
"We've seen Russia advance unlawful maritime claims, particularly its regulation of foreign vessels transiting the Northern Sea route, which are inconsistent with international law," Blinken said at a joint media briefing with Iceland's foreign minister.
Blinken's remarks came a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Western countries not to claim rights to the Arctic.
"It has been absolutely clear for everyone for a long time that this is our territory, this is our land," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow. "We are responsible for ensuring our Arctic coast is safe."
As climate change accelerates the melting of the Arctic's ice sheet, the Arctic becomes more accessible.
In recent years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has made Russia's Arctic region a higher strategic priority, raising tensions with Arctic Council members over its investments in military infrastructure and mineral extraction.
The U.S. State Department said earlier the leaders would discuss “the global community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and the need for greater climate action, promoting women’s rights and equality, and Arctic security.”
Blinken lauded U.S. President Joe Biden's return to the Paris climate agreement and resolve to fight combat climate change during a meeting with Icelandic President Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir.
Blinken also toured a geothermal plant in Reykjavik.
Talks with Russia
On the sidelines of the Arctic Council ministerial meeting Wednesday, Blinken will hold his first face-to-face encounter with Lavrov. The meeting comes at a time of heightened tension between the U.S. and Russia and will set the stage for a planned summit next month between U.S. President Joe Biden and Putin.
The State Department said the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov is an opportunity to discuss building a "more predictable relationship with Russia" and "working on areas where we have mutual interests."
A senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Blinken that the Biden administration has made progress in its relationship with Russia with respect to reaching an agreement to extend the START nuclear weapons treaty, but that it has also faced areas of difficulties.
"We were able to do the extension of the important New START Treaty for five years right off the bat, but we also look at areas where Russia has behaved aggressively and undertaken malign efforts for which, as the president said, there will be a cost," the official said.
The United States has recently been at odds with Russia over Moscow's jailing of Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny, Russia's buildup of military forces near Ukraine, and a cyberattack on the largest U.S. gas pipeline by hackers believed to be in Russia.
Russia says its government was not involved in the cyberattack. It has accused the United States of trying to interfere in its domestic issues, including the jailing of Navalny.
Trip to Denmark
Before traveling to Iceland, Blinken was in Denmark, where he held talks about economic, security and climate issues, as well as the Biden administration's ongoing push to boost ties with U.S. allies.
"Looking forward to deepening our partnership on mutual goals, including combating the climate crisis, enhancing defense cooperation, ensuring energy security and partnering in the Arctic," Blinken said after meeting with Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
After the meeting, Frederiksen said the Biden administration is taking a different approach from the Trump administration.
"That means a desire for cooperation around the Arctic region, where changes are taking place," she said.
Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod said, "Today, America is back. … And let me tell you, America has been missed."
Blinken said the United States is determined "to reinvigorate its alliances and partnerships and also our engagement with international institutions."
The Biden administration has renewed emphasis on international organizations, including rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement and reengaging with the United Nations Human Rights Council.