Russia has canceled a planned round of talks with the US in protest at new sanctions imposed this week over Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine.
The deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, denounced the new sanctions, which expanded the list of individuals and organisations targeted by the US treasury, as the responsibility of “avid Russophobes” in Congress who were determined to derail US-Russian relations.
As a result, Ryabkov said he was cancelling a meeting with his US counterpart, Tom Shannon, in St Petersburg later this week – which was supposed to have been part of a continuing dialogue between Washington and Moscow aimed at reducing “irritants” in bilateral relations.
The sanctions, Ryabkov said, had meant that the circumstances were “not conducive to holding this round of dialogue, particularly as there is no agenda set out for it, as Washington does not to want to make concrete proposals”.
In response, the state department expressed regret and said the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was “open to future discussions”.
However, in a bluntly worded response to Ryabkov’s statement, the state department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, insisted the new measures were intended to reinforce existing sanctions and were “designed to counter attempts to circumvent our sanctions”.
“Let’s remember that these sanctions didn’t just come out of nowhere. Our targeted sanctions were imposed in response to Russia’s ongoing violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbor, Ukraine,” Nauert said.
“If the Russians seek an end to these sanctions, they know very well the US position,” she added, saying that Moscow would have to abide fully by the Minsk agreement for resolving the conflict in Ukraine and “end its occupation” of Crimea.
The cancellation of the St Petersburg meeting and the stern exchange of statements are part of a marked dip in US-Russian relations despite Donald Trump’s efforts to improve them. In Congress, House allies of Trump have stalled a Senate bill that would intensify sanctions further and take the power to lift them out of his hands.
On Wednesday, a plane carrying the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, was approached by a Nato F-16 fighter over the Baltic Sea, prompting a Russian fighter jet to insert itself between the two planes and tilting its wings to show it was armed.
The mid-air incident came a day after another close encounter above the Baltic between US and Russian warplanes.
The Pentagon spokesman, Capt Jeff Davis, said: “Due to the high rate of speed, the poor control that the Russian pilot had of his aircraft during the intercept, the aircraft commander of the [US reconnaissance plane] RC 135 determined it to be unsafe. Such unsafe actions have the potential to cause serious harm and injury to all involved.”
Sweden also reported that a Russian plane had come close to one of its military aircraft over the Baltic on Monday.
The Russian defence minister put out a statement saying that two US “spy planes” had been making “provocative” manoeuvres.
In Syria, meanwhile, Moscow has announced it had suspended a hotline between the US and Russian militaries in Syria and that it would view as targets any coalition planes flying west of the Euphrates river. The Pentagon has played down the threat, saying it continued to operate west of the Euphrates.
“Public statements aside, we have not seen the Russians do any actions that cause us concern. We continue to operate, making some adjustments for prudent measures,” Davis said.
Maxim Suchkov, a political analyst and editor of al-Monitor’s Russian coverage, said Moscow’s decision to cancel the St Petersburg talks “is explained by that given the recent events in Syria and Ukraine, Russia wants to raise the stakes and attempts to take its own ‘position of strength’ vis-a-vis Washington.”
“I’d say it’s a risky move on the Russian side, since in Washington the message to suspend the talks may be read differently from what Moscow intended it to sound,” Suchkov said.