Washington: Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin avoided a renewed arms race Tuesday when they formally agreed to extend the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between their countries. But White House officials said Biden also confronted the Kremlin leader over the poisoning of an Opposition activist and a hacking of government and private computer networks in the United States.
It was the first call between the leaders of the world's two largest nuclear powers since Biden's inauguration. But it was being watched as much for its tone as its substance: Biden vowed during the transition to make Russia "pay a price" for the hacking, and his administration, in its opening hours, demanded the release of Alexei Navalny, whose arrest on 17 January prompted protests last weekend across Russia that resulted in more than 3,000 arrests.
The call was, in essence, the opening act of what promises to be a deeply adversarial relationship between the two leaders, and most likely the sharpest turn in American foreign policy since Donald Trump left office one week ago.
American intelligence agencies, led by the CIA, assessed before the 2020 election that Putin had a clear preference for the reelection of Trump, who, during his four years in office, treated the Russian leader with remarkable deference. Biden, in contrast, had repeatedly called Putin a "KGB thug" and mocked Trump as "Putin's puppy." Putin, for his part, had chastised Biden for his "sharp anti-Russian" language.
But there was none of that kind of name-calling in the official White House and Kremlin accounts of this first conversation, a tempering of language that seemed to reflect the fact that both leaders recognised that they must now deal with each other.
Biden tried to deflect a question about the call with a joke, telling reporters at a White House event that Putin, whose government has jailed journalists and has been accused of worse, "sends his best!"
The call came at the request of the Russians at a moment when Biden is receiving congratulatory calls " all determined to get off on a good foot with a new administration " from many national leaders.
But there was an immediate need: The New START agreement, which limited the size of the two countries' strategic nuclear arsenals, expires on 5 February.
On Monday night, the countries exchanged diplomatic notes to extend the treaty for five years, the maximum allowed in its text. Trump had initially declared that he would not extend it unless China also joined.
The Chinese immediately rejected the idea, and noted that Beijing had fewer than 300 deployed nuclear weapons. Chinese officials asked, somewhat mockingly, whether the United States and Russia might be willing to cut their own arsenals by four-fifths to match China's level " or encourage China to deploy more than 1,000 new weapons to match the American and Russian arsenals.
A last-minute effort by the Trump administration to negotiate an improvement to the treaty also failed; by that time, Putin appeared to be betting that Biden would win, and would want to make good on his promise to renew the Barack Obama-era treaty.
The treaty limits nuclear arsenals to 1,550 strategic warheads. The five-year extension was built into the original text, if both countries agreed, so it does not need further approval by the Senate. But Putin will need to ratify the extension through the Duma, which he controls; it initially approved the treaty itself 10 years ago this week.
Putin and Biden "voiced their satisfaction" about diplomatic steps taken earlier in the day to exercise the extension, the Kremlin said.
"In the coming days, both sides will finish the procedures necessary to assure the continued functioning of this important international legal mechanism to place mutual limits on nuclear-missile arsenals," it added.
The extension does not cover tactical nuclear weapons, nor does it reverse Trump's decision to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement, amid American charges that Russia was violating its terms. There is a question whether Russia's new class of nuclear-armed undersea drones and other weapons would be covered.
But the New START extension avoids a costly arms race " and Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, argued that if the country was going to confront Russia for its malign activities, it was better to do so with both sides under nuclear constraints.
Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, said Tuesday that the White House was right "to engage Putin on issues of mutual interest like the New START treaty extension," while raising Russia's "belligerent foreign policy actions" and speaking "bluntly about human rights violations inside Russia."
"The challenge, of course, is implementing all three of these policy ambitions simultaneously," said McFaul, now the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. "Navalny and his team, for instance, has called upon the West to sanction not just a handful of obscure Russian intelligence officers responsible for his poisoning and arrest, but instead those Russian billionaires, with real assets in the West, who enable Putin's regime. Will Biden go that far? Let's see."
Not surprisingly, the Russian account of the conversation made no mention of Navalny, who survived the poisoning, or the considerable evidence that the attack was the work of Russian intelligence. Navalny's allies seized on that omission as evidence of Putin's brittleness.
"Putin lies always, about everything, to the last," Leonid Volkov, a close aide to Navalny, posted on Twitter.
Biden also raised with Putin the highly sophisticated hacking of US government and private networks, called "SolarWinds" after the name of the Texas-based firm whose network-management software was one way Russian hackers got access to 18,000 networks. While Biden has ordered a broad assessment of the intelligence and promised that Russia would pay a price for the action, the White House gave no details of what he said " or threatened.
American intelligence assessments of Russia placing bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan was also raised by Biden, as well as what White House officials said was "interference in the 2020 United States election."
"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 statement said. "The two presidents agreed to maintain transparent and consistent communication going forward."
For its part, the Kremlin said Putin "noted that normalising the relationship between Russia and the United States would be in the interest of both countries and " given their special responsibility for security and stability in the world " of the entire international community."
David E Sanger and Anton Troianovski c.2021 The New York Times Company