Biden raises Navalny concerns in first call with Putin

27 January 2021, 07:44

Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin
Biden Putin. Picture: PA

The new US president has looked to establish a break from the warm rhetoric often displayed towards Mr Putin by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

US President Joe Biden has had his first call with Vladimir Putin, the White House and Kremlin said.

Mr Biden raised concerns about the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny while pressing the Russian president on his nation’s involvement in a massive cyber espionage campaign and bounties on American troops in Afghanistan, US officials said.

On a positive note, the two presidents agreed to have their teams work urgently to complete an extension of New Start, the last remaining US-Russian arms control treaty, before it expires next month.

“In the nearest days, the parties will complete the necessary procedures that will ensure further functioning” of the pact, the Kremlin said in its readout of the call.

Germany Russia Navalny
Alexei Navalny and his wife Yulia on the flight from Germany to Moscow, where he was subsequently arrested (Mstyslav Chernov/AP)

Mr Biden has looked to establish a break from the warm rhetoric often displayed towards Mr Putin by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

But the new president is also looking to preserve room for diplomacy.

Unlike his immediate predecessors, Mr Biden has not held out hope for a “reset” in relations with Russia but has instead indicated he wants to manage differences with the former Cold War foe 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 something he seeks.

Moscow reached out last week to request the call, according to the US officials.

Mr Biden agreed but wanted first to prepare with his staff and speak to European allies, including the leaders of Britain, France and Germany.

Belgium NATO US Trump Impeachment
Joe Biden assured Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg of the US’s commitment to the alliance (Oliver Hoslet/Pool/AP)

On Tuesday before his call with Mr Putin, Mr Biden spoke to Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, pledging the United States’ commitment to the decades-old alliance founded as a bulwark against Russian aggression.

Mr Biden told Mr Putin that his administration is assessing the SolarWinds breach and the reports that Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan.

Mr Biden said the United States is willing to defend itself and will take action, which could include further sanctions, to ensure that Moscow does not act with impunity, according to the administration officials.

The Kremlin’s readout 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 normalisation of ties between Russia and the United States would serve the interests of both countries”.

Among the issues it said were discussed were the coronavirus pandemic, the Iran nuclear agreement, Ukraine and issues related to trade and the economy.

The call came as Mr Putin considers the aftermath of pro-Navalny protests that took place in more than 100 Russian cities over the weekend.

Mr Biden’s team has already reacted strongly to the crackdown on the protests, in which more than 3,700 people were arrested across Russia, including more than 1,400 in Moscow. More protests are planned for the coming weekend.

Mr Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and Mr Putin’s best-known critic, was arrested on January 17 as he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had spent nearly five months recovering from nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.

Mr Biden has previously condemned the use of chemical weapons.

Russian authorities deny the accusations.

Russia Navalny
Demonstrators clash with police in St Petersburg during a protest against the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

Mr Trump seemed to seek Mr Putin’s approval, frequently casting doubt on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, including when he stood next to Mr Putin at their 2018 summit in Helsinki.

He also played down Russia’s involvement in the hacking of federal government agencies last year and the allegations that Russia offered the Taliban bounties.

Despite this conciliatory approach, Mr Trump’s administration toed a tough line against Moscow, imposing sanctions on the country, Russian companies and business leaders for issues ranging from Ukraine to energy supplies and attacks on dissidents.

Mr Biden, in his call with Mr Putin, broke sharply with Mr Trump by declaring that he knew that Russia attempted to interfere with both the 2016 and 2020 elections.

On Monday, he told reporters he hoped the US and Russia could co-operate in areas where both see benefit.

“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 behaviour, whether it’s Navalny, whether it’s SolarWinds or reports of bounties on heads of Americans in Afghanistan,” Mr Biden said.

Mr Biden’s approach has met with approval from some former US diplomats who have dealt with Russia and are looking forward to seeing how Mr Biden’s team, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his nominee to be the number three at the State Department, Victoria Nuland, delineates the contours of Russia policy.

Ms Nuland, who held the Europe portfolio at the State Department in President Barack Obama’s second term, is reviled by Mr Putin and his aides in particular for her support of pro-Western politicians in Ukraine.

She and Mr Sullivan are said to share opinions about how to deal with Moscow, taking a tough line on human rights and Russia’s intentions in eastern and central Europe while keeping an open channel to the Kremlin on other matters.

By Press Association