NUSA DUA, Indonesia — In the nearly five months since Russia invaded Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has maintained the same posture toward Moscow: Do not engage.
“The problem is this,” Blinken told reporters at a news conference on Saturday. “We see no signs whatsoever that Russia is prepared to engage in meaningful diplomacy.”
Some veteran diplomats say the lack of contact is a mistake given the United States’ wide set of interests involving Moscow. The war in Ukraine has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainians, sent global food and energy prices soaring, and raised military tensions between Russia and NATO to new heights. The United States is also seeking the return of high-profile American detainees from Russia, including WNBA star Brittney Griner and Marine veteran Paul Whelan.
“The first step is opening channels of communication where you can measure what your adversary is looking for,” said Tom Shannon, a former senior State Department official with three decades of government experience. “You can’t know unless you try.”
Blinken hasn’t spoken to Lavrov since January and chose not to meet him on the resort island of Bali despite their physical proximity here. The avoidance came as the Group of 20’s host urged her fellow diplomats to start talking to find a resolution to the conflict.
“It is our responsibility to end the war sooner rather than later and settle our differences at the negotiating table, not at the battlefield,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in a keynote speech.
U.S. officials offered several reasons for not engaging, including a concern that it would be seen as inappropriate as the Kremlin engages in a brutal war, and a suspicion that the failed attempts of other countries, such as France, Turkey and Israel, to engage Moscow would only be repeated.
“A number of other countries have engaged with Russia in recent months and they report the same thing: no sign that Russia is prepared to engage in diplomacy,” Blinken said.
Critics say meetings between Russian officials and foreign allies provide a poor comparison.
“If the United States isn’t present, it’s not a serious conversation in the mind of the Russians,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a Europe scholar and former Obama administration official. “That shouldn’t be a surprise: The United States provides the vast majority of assistance to Ukraine and is the leader of the Western coalition.”
Shannon said shifts in the war’s momentum can open diplomatic opportunities. The United States needs to be testing Russia’s appetite for an off-ramp as the conflict evolves, he said.
“What’s happened is we’ve let a period of maximum leverage slide,” he said.
“We had the Russians on the run when they were in northern Ukraine and trying to take Kyiv and they were suffering heavy casualties,” he said. “Since then, they've rectified that situation: moving the fight to the east and largely fighting through artillery.”
“You want to be talking through those phases,” he added.
Talking to the Kremlin in the middle of a crisis has precedent, from the Cold War to more recent conflicts. During the George W. Bush administration, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, a month after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. John F. Kerry, President Barack Obama’s secretary of state, spoke frequently with Lavrov after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and stoked an insurgency in eastern Ukraine.
“Being in a room with John Kerry is not a favor to anybody,” said Shapiro. “It’s an old State Department joke, but it’s an important point. The job of secretary of state is to talk to friends and enemies to figure out what can be done through negotiation.”
Some U.S. officials argue that Lavrov’s relative weakness within the Russian system makes him an inconsequential negotiating partner. But advocates of engagement say they’re missing the purpose of talks.
“It’s true Lavrov is not a decision-maker but he is a conduit who faithfully reflects the position of the Kremlin,” Shapiro said. “You wouldn’t meet with Lavrov to close the deal, but if you want to understand where the Russians are or send a message discreetly to Putin, he’s your guy.”
Russia’s frustrations with being locked out of discussions seem apparent, though officials in Moscow are loath to admit it. Last month, Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, was overheard by a Politico reporter bemoaning the lack of contact with U.S. officials while dining at a popular Washington restaurant.
In Indonesia, Lavrov rejected the notion that he was upset but made clear that the lack of dialogue was beyond his control. “It was not us who abandoned all contacts, it was the United States,” he said Friday. “We are not running after anybody suggesting meetings. If they don’t want to talk, it’s their choice.”
Though a broad array of nations at the G-20 strongly advocated dialogue, many made clear that they blamed Russia for starting the war and exacerbating global food and energy insecurity.
“A supermajority of the delegates were critical of Russia,” said a Western official present for the closed-door meetings who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks. “A minority of delegates were more even[-handed].”
The presence of Russia and its friendlier partners, such as China, India and South Africa, resulted in the meeting ending without a joint communique expressing shared goals. The “family photo,” a hallmark of G-20 events usually featuring matching shirts, was also scrapped due to sharp disunity within the group.
Advocates of engagement admit it offers no guarantee that Russia will seek a settlement of the war, especially as the battlefield momentum shifts to Russian forces, which have captured all of the eastern region of Luhansk in recent days.
While Blinken maintains his distance, other U.S. officials have had some minor engagement with Moscow. In March, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke by phone with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev. In May, the top U.S. military officer, Gen. Mark A. Milley, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke over the phone with their Russian counterparts on security-related issues. The scope of military-to-military discussions was limited, however, and not designed to negotiate an end to the conflict.
Blinken, who often champions the power of diplomacy, said he would seize the opportunity if he sensed Russian sincerity.
“If we see any signs that Russia is actually prepared to engage in real diplomacy and bring this war to an end, of course, we’ll engage in that,” he said on Saturday.
Others said there is only one way to find out.
“The very basis of international negotiation is that you don’t show signs of making compromises until you’re at the table making compromises,” Shapiro said. “You don’t offer compromises before you even start.”
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.
The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.
Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.
Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.