WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden held his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin since being sworn into office last week – a conversation that comes amid heightened U.S.-Russia tensions and after Putin initially refused to recognize Biden’s election win.
The agenda for the Biden-Putin conversation was long, running from areas of cooperation, such as nuclear arms control, to areas of contention, such as Russia’s military aggression toward Ukraine.
During the campaign, Biden promised to take a tougher line with Putin than ex-President Donald Trump did. Trump often seemed to reluctant to confront Putin on Russia’s antagonistic behavior, particularly Moscow’s efforts to undermine U.S. elections.
During their phone call, Biden and Putin discussed their shared goal of renewing an expiring U.S.-Russia nuclear arms control agreement, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters during a briefing on Tuesday. That major arms control pact expires on Feb. 5, so it’s an urgent matter.
“They also agreed to explore strategic stability discussions on a range of arms control and emerging security issues,” the White House said in its read-out of the conversation.
The rest of the call focused on U.S.-Russia flashpoints, according to the White House, starting with Russia’s ongoing aggression toward Ukraine, a pivotal U.S. ally.
Biden reiterated America’s support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, Psaki said. He also pressed Putin about Russia’s alleged role in four high-profile national security threats:
• The Kremlin’s effort to interfere in U.S. elections, including its dissemination of disinformation about Biden and his son Hunter in the 2020 race;
• Allegations that Putin ordered the poisoning of an opponent, Alexei Navalny, who was recently arrested in Russia after recovering from the attempted assassination.
Biden’s intention was “to make clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of our national interests in response to malign actions by Russia,” Psaki said.
Putin’s spokesman has denied the Kremlin played a role in Navalny’s poisoning.
Putin was among the last major world leaders to acknowledge Biden’s victory in the Nov. 3 election, waiting until Dec. 15 – after the Electoral College certified the results – to wish the new president success and to welcome engagement.
The Kremlin, which had denounced what it called Biden’s “sharp anti-Russian rhetoric” during the campaign, said it wanted to wait until the election results were official, even though scores of other world leaders congratulated Biden soon after he was declared the winner.
While this is Biden’s first call as U.S. president with Putin, the two men have a long history of engagement – much of it frosty.
In 2011, for example, Biden was in Russia for a meeting with Putin when Biden made a startling remark about Putin’s character.
“Mr. Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul,” Biden recalled in an interview with Evan Osnos, whose biography of Biden was published in October. “And [Putin] looked back at me, and he smiled, and he said, ‘We understand one another.’”
The comment was a play on former President George W. Bush’s warmer assessment of Putin in 2001, when Bush called the Russian strongman “very straightforward and trustworthy.”
Trump had a warm relationship with Putin – much to the chagrin of lawmakers in both parties and national security experts across the spectrum. Trump refused to say, for example, whether he confronted Putin about U.S. intelligence reports suggesting Russia had offered bounties for the lives of American soldiers in Afghanistan.