As Russia Fortifies Ukraine Border, John Kerry Talks Climate with Russian Foreign Minister

MUNICH, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 11: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry (L-R) give a press conference following a meeting of the International Syrian Support Group (ISSG) on February 11, 2016 in Munich, Germany. ISSG met in Munich ahead of the International Munich Security Conference …
Alexandra Beier/Getty Images

John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s special representative on climate change, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday for an impromptu meeting on “the climate agenda” in India.

The meeting occurred as Russian troops and weaponry continue to amass on the border of Ukraine, alarming the European Union, NATO, and other key American allies. Moscow insists that troop movements within Russia’s borders are not the business of any other nation and Russia “does not pose a threat to any country in the world.”

Ukraine has endured years of civil war, fueled by Russian support for separatist forces, on its eastern border in a region known as Donbass. Ukraine also lost control of its Crimea region in 2014 after Russia invaded and colonized it, declaring all its residents Russian citizens. President Volodymyr Zelensky signed an executive decree in late March launching a formal policy to return the Crimean peninsula to Ukrainian rule, after which large amounts of Russian military weaponry began to appear on the two countries’ mutual border.

President Joe Biden held a phone conversation with Zelensky for the first time last week amid escalating tensions, his first such conversation since becoming president.

Russian news agency Tass confirmed that Kerry and Lavrov had met in New Delhi, India, on Tuesday at a hotel lobby. The meeting did not appear to be planned and both officials are in the city for a different set of diplomatic engagements.

“The envoys focused on the climate agenda,” according to an unnamed source speaking to Tass.

Neither side disclosed details of the meeting, so it remains unclear exactly what contributions Russia can make to Kerry’s crusade against climate change. While geographically the largest country in the world, Russia’s weak economy and poor development result in it emitting only five percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, a third of America’s output and nearly one-sixth of China’s.

Kerry’s top priority as climate envoy at the moment is to organize a “virtual climate summit” for the Biden administration, Tass noted, for which Kerry was currently visiting India. Washington hopes to convince the heads of state of 40 countries to participate in the event. The Hindustan Times reported that Kerry was also working on pressuring Indian officials during his meeting to work on “mitigating India’s fossil use energy.” India is the world’s third-largest carbon emitter, responsible for seven percent of the world’s output. India’s air quality is among the world’s worst and believed to be responsible for 1.67 million deaths in 2019.

While Tass described their conversation as a meeting, a statement to the Hindustan Times described the incident as a “happenstance” affair and not part of America’s broader foreign policy.

“The two ran into each other by happenstance staying at the same hotel and chatted for a few minutes about climate,” the newspaper quoted the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi as saying in a statement.

Kerry’s engagement with Russia’s top diplomat appears unrelated to the U.S. State Department’s strategy on the situation in Ukraine. Images from the border surfacing this weekend appeared to show large numbers of military vehicles with covered license plates approaching the Donbass region from Russia. The Russian government has not denied the movements but condemned international concern over them.

“No one has been wandering. The Russian army is moving across Russian territory in the directions it considers it necessary, the way it considers it necessary, to ensure safety and security of our country,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “Russia does not pose a threat to any country in the world, including, of course, Ukraine.”

The State Department confirmed Monday that it had solicited an “explanation” for mounting video and photo evidence of tanks and other heavy artillery moving closer to Ukraine in the past week. Spokesman Ned Price also assured reporters that the Biden administration is “concerned” about the situation.

“We are concerned by recent escalating Russian aggressions in eastern Ukraine, including the credible reports that have been emanating about Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s borders and occupied Crimea,” Price said. “In addition to our reassurances to Ukrainian officials, we’re discussing our concerns about this increase in tensions and ceasefire violations and regional tensions with NATO allies, of course. And the other week in Brussels, this was a broad topic of discussions.”

“We have asked Russia for an explanation of these provocations, but most importantly what we have signaled directly with our Ukrainian partners is a message of reassurance,” Price said, using as an example Biden’s call with Zelensky, his first one since being elected president in November 2020.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki also told reporters Monday that Washington was “watching closely” for potential violence.

Zelensky does not appear to be waiting for support from Washington, spending Tuesday speaking to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg advocating for full Ukrainian membership in the military alliance.

As a full member, Ukraine would enjoy the protections under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which would require military action by all NATO states, including America, if any state attacks Ukraine.

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