Joe Biden called his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Tuesday for the first time since taking office, pressing the Russian president on the arrest of opposition political leader Alexei Navalny, the Kremlin’s alleged cyberattack last year that compromised the files of multiple US federal agencies, and the Russian military’s alleged bounty scheme against US troops in Afghanistan.
The Associated Press first reported Mr Biden and Mr Putin’s phone call.
Mr Biden is eager to set a new tone for the US in its relationship with Russia, its Cold War adversary throughout the back half of the 20th century that has sought to undermine American democracy and re-establish itself on the world stage under Mr Putin these last two decades.
Mr Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, routinely gave Mr Putin the benefit of the doubt – despite objections from American intelligence officials – on everything from Russian interference in the 2016 and 2020 elections, the massive 2020 SolarWinds cyber attack, the Afghan bounty scheme, and Mr Navalny’s poisoning last summer.
The new Democratic president is not pursuing another “reset” of relations with Mr Putin – an undertaking from Barack Obama’s first term that most western foreign policy experts see now as a failure – but he also does not want open confrontation with his Russian counterpart.
While Mr Biden has broken with Mr Trump by directly confronting Mr Putin over election interference, the Afghan bounty scheme, and the 2020 cyber attack, the two leaders’ conversation on Tuesday was not entirely combative.
On the call, Mr Biden and Mr Putin expressed their mutual desire to formalise a five-year extension of a bilateral nuclear arms control treaty known as “New START”, the latest in a succession of arms limitation agreements between the two nations since the early 1990s.
New START was first signed by Mr Obama in 2009 and allows each nation transparency into the other’s nuclear arsenal.
“I find that we can both operate in the mutual self-interest of our countries as a New START agreement and make it clear to Russia that we are very concerned about their behavior, whether it’s Navalny, whether it’s SolarWinds or reports of bounties on heads of Americans in Afghanistan,” Mr Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday.
The Kremlin’s readout of the conversation between the two leaders characterised it as of a “businesslike and frank nature”.
The Kremlin readout added: “It was agreed to maintain contacts.”
The Biden administration in recent days has repeatedly urged Mr Putin to release Mr Navalny and his supporters who have been detained for protesting his incarceration over the weekend.
“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release of Alexei Navalny,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday, echoing a statement from the State Department from over the weekend.
Ms Psaki reiterated calls for Russia to “cooperate” with the international investigation into Mr Navalny’s poisoning in August 2020 and to “credibly explain” the use of a chemical weapon, Novichok, on one of its own citizens.
Mr Navalny, who has recovered from the attack after treatment in a German hospital, returned to Moscow on a flight on 17 January and was promptly arrested. He is the most popular opposition political leader to Mr Putin.
Thousands of pro-Navalny protesters were detained by police over the weekend for demonstrating against his arrest. Many have been released.
Mr Biden has tasked the US intelligence community with compiling an official assessment of at least four areas of Russia’s malign activity: the massive SolarWinds hack that breached several US federal agencies and global supply chain data, Mr Putin’s interference in the 2020 election, the use of chemical weapons against Mr Navalny, and the alleged Afghan bounty scheme.
That review is “ongoing,” Ms Psaki said on Monday, saying that while she had no timeline for the review, it was an administration “priority”.
Oliver O’Connell contributed to this report.