US President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin held their first conversation as counterparts on Tuesday in a phone call that underscored troubled relations and the delicate balance between the former Cold War foes.
According to the White House, Mr. Biden raised concerns about the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Russia’s alleged involvement in a massive cyber espionage campaign and reports of Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan. The Kremlin, meanwhile, focused on Mr. Putin’s response to Mr. Biden’s proposal to extend the last remaining US-Russia arms control treaty.
While the readouts from the two capitals emphasised different elements, they both suggested that US-Russia relations will be guided, at least at the beginning of the Biden administration, by a desire to do no harm but also no urgency to repair existing damage.
The two presidents agreed to have their teams work urgently to complete a five-year extension of the New START nuclear weapons treaty that expires next month. Former President Donald Trump’s administration had withdrawn from two arms control treaties with Russia and had been prepared to let New START lapse.
Unlike his immediate predecessors — including Mr. Trump, who was enamoured of Mr. Putin and frequently undercut his own administration’s tough stance on Russia — Mr. Biden has not held out hope for a “reset” in relations. Instead he has indicated he wants to manage differences without necessarily resolving them or improving ties.
And with a heavy domestic agenda and looming decisions needed on Iran and China, a direct confrontation with Russia is not likely something Mr. Biden seeks.
Although the leaders agreed to work together to extend New START before it expires February 5 and to look at other areas of potential strategic cooperation, the White House said Mr. Biden was firm on US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, while Russia is supporting separatists in the country’s east.
Mr. Biden also raised the SolarWinds cyberhack, which has been attributed to Russia, reports of Russian bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan, interference in the 2020 US election, the poisoning of Mr. Navalny and the weekend crackdown on Mr. Navalny’s supporters.
“President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defence of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies,” the White House said. Mr. Biden told Mr. Putin in the phone call, first reported by The Associated Press, that the US would defend itself and take action, which could include further sanctions, to ensure Moscow does not act with impunity, officials said.
Moscow had reached out last week to request the call, according to US officials familiar with the matter but not authorized to discuss it publicly. Mr. Biden agreed, but he wanted first to prepare with his staff and speak with European allies, including the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, which he did.
Before he spoke to Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden also called NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg to pledge US commitment to the decades-old alliance founded as a bulwark against Russian aggression.
The Kremlin’s readout of the call did not address the most contentious issues between the countries, though it said the leaders also discussed other “acute issues on the bilateral and international agenda.” It described the talk as “frank and businesslike” — often a diplomatic way of referring to tense discussions. It also said Mr. Putin congratulated Mr. Biden on becoming president and “noted that normalization of ties between Russia and the United States would serve the interests of both countries.” Among the issues the Kremlin said were discussed were the coronavirus pandemic, the Iran nuclear agreement, Ukraine and issues related to trade and the economy.