By Ken Bredemeier
For the first time since his inauguration, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke Tuesday with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, expressing concerns about the arrest of dissident Alexei Navalny, Moscow’s cyber-espionage campaign and bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, two senior Biden administration officials said.
Biden’s stance appeared to mark another sharp break with that of former President Donald Trump, who often voiced delight at his warm relations with the Kremlin leader. At the same time, according to U.S. accounts of the call, Biden told Putin that Russia and the United States should complete a five-year extension of their nuclear arms control treaty before it expires in early February.
There was no immediate readout of the call from Moscow, but Russia reached out to Biden in the first days of his four-year term in the White House. The U.S. leader agreed but only after he had prepared with his staff and had a chance for phone calls with three close Western allies of the U.S. — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It was not immediately known how Putin responded to Biden raising contentious issues between the two countries.
Biden told reporters Monday that despite disagreements with Moscow, “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.”
Shortly before his call with Putin, Biden spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, reassuring him of the United States’s commitment to the West’s post-World War II military pact that was formed as an alliance against the threat of Russian aggression.
During his White House tenure, Trump often quarreled with NATO allies, complaining they were not contributing enough money for their mutual defense.
The former president was often deferential to Putin, rejecting claims in the U.S. from opposition Democrats that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to help him win — a years-long saga that Trump derisively dismissed as “the Russia hoax.”
Last year, Trump also questioned whether Russia was involved in the hack of software manufactured by the U.S. company SolarWinds that breached files at the departments of Commerce, Treasury and Energy.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Russia was “pretty clearly” behind the cyberattack, but Trump claimed the attack was being overplayed by the U.S. media and that perhaps China was responsible.
Before taking office, Biden said, “I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation.”
Trump had also dismissed claims that Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, another issue Biden pressed Putin on.
Despite his conciliatory approach to Russia, Trump imposed sanctions on the country, Russian companies and business leaders over various issues, including Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine and attacks on dissidents.
The Biden-Putin call followed pro-Navalny protests in more than 100 Russian cities last weekend, with more than 3,700 people arrested across Russia.
Navalny is an anti-corruption campaigner and Putin’s fiercest critic. He was arrested January 17 as he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering for nearly five months after a nerve-agent poisoning he claims was carried out by Russian agents, an accusation the Kremlin has rejected.