The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In first call with Putin, Biden marks a return to skepticism from the top

President Biden holds up a face mask as he speaks about the coronavirus pandemic at the White House on Jan. 26.
President Biden holds up a face mask as he speaks about the coronavirus pandemic at the White House on Jan. 26. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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President Biden laid out a bill of complaint against Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, airing allegations of human rights abuses, cyberspying and more while making a hard pivot away from the deference that former president Donald Trump often displayed toward Russia.

The phone call less than a week into Biden’s term was his first known contact with an adversarial foreign leader. It came as the United States has joined European nations and others in condemning the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and after a crackdown on street protests.

Biden’s agenda for the call included protest of “ongoing Russian aggression” against Ukraine, and he confronted Putin over the “Solar Winds” espionage case, alleged interference in U.S. elections and the alleged offer to pay bounties for the deaths of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

“His intention was also 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.

Throughout his presidency, Trump refused to pin blame on Russia for actions ranging from 2016 election interference to the attempted assassination of a British former spy, the poisoning of Navalny last year, the alleged bounties and the extensive cyberhack that affected U.S. federal agencies and corporations. In each of those cases, other elements of the U.S. government blamed Russia.

Alongside the return to official skepticism from the top about Russian actions and motives, Biden made an expected offer to Putin to extend a key arms control agreement.

The pact, known as New START, is the last remaining nuclear arms treaty between the former Cold War enemies, and the timing of Biden’s call was partly driven by the clock. The pact would expire next week unless extended by both nations, something the United States can do without congressional approval.

Why Trump’s America has been a ‘gift’ to Putin

Russia and the United States traded documents Tuesday to extend the pact for five years.

The Kremlin also released a readout of the call between the two leaders. It did not mention the issues Psaki listed and took an optimistic tone about cooperation under Biden’s presidency.

“The presidents expressed their satisfaction with today’s exchange of the diplomatic notes of having reached an agreement to extend the New START,” the statement said. “Over the next few days the two sides will finalize all procedures necessary for further functioning of this important mechanism of international law on the mutual limitation of nuclear missile arsenals.”

Biden also spoke Tuesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and “conveyed his intention to consult and work with allies on the full range of shared security concerns” and reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to “strengthening transatlantic security.”

A written summary of the Putin call provided by the White House later Tuesday emphasized extending the arms control treaty. The statement raised the possibility of further talks on other arms control and security issues before listing the allegations and complaints Biden had laid out to Putin.

“The two presidents agreed to maintain transparent and consistent communication going forward,” the White House statement said.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council aide fired by Trump after testifying during Trump’s 2019 impeachment trial, tweeted Tuesday in support of the shift that the conversation represented.

“An enormous departure from the last four years,” he wrote.

Trump repeatedly declined to challenge Putin in public or in private. He took Putin’s word over that of U.S. intelligence services that Russia was not involved in undermining the 2016 presidential election and equivocated about Russian culpability in numerous other areas. The reasons are not clear, although former aides said Trump was extremely sensitive about any suggestion that Russia had helped him win in 2016.

Photos of protests in Russia for Alexei Navalny

“He was the lap dog for Russia rather than the watchdog for America,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said in an interview on MSNBC, as he called the Biden phone call a “refreshing” return to the premise that the U.S. president should hold Putin to account.

Trump had 18 one-on-one calls with Putin over four years, according to Kremlin readouts. On a number of occasions, the White House did not even acknowledge the calls until after an announcement by Moscow, and some reported by Moscow do not appear in archived public White House records.

Both sides generally provided anodyne statements acknowledging joint global concerns, along with promises to work together. One of Trump’s early calls to Putin, in December 2017, was described by the White House as simply a thank you to the Russian leader for “acknowledging America’s strong economic performance in his annual press conference.”

In March 2018, according to White House records, Trump called Putin to congratulate him on his reelection. News reports about the call later revealed that Trump had been given briefing notes ahead of the conversation that warned “DO NOT CONGRATULATE.”

Trump hid details of face-to-face meetings with Putin, even from close aides

On the same call, despite international skepticism about the fairness of the race, Trump proposed meeting Putin at the White House, in what would have been the Russian leader’s first visit since 2005. No Putin visit ever occurred during the Trump administration.

After Trump’s controversial 2019 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leaked, and its contents led to Trump’s first impeachment, the White House ordered new restrictions on those allowed to view internal transcripts of his communications with world leaders.

Trump’s last reported calls with Putin took place over a several-week period last year. On June 1 — after Trump had suggested to reporters that he wanted to invite Putin to that year’s U.S.-hosted Group of Seven conference — he said that they had discussed “progress toward convening the meeting.”

The idea was dropped after other members of the group complained that Russia continued to occupy parts of Ukraine — the reason it was kicked out of the G-7 in 2014 — and planned to boycott.

On Tuesday, the United States joined the other G-7 nations in condemning what a statement called “the politically motivated arrest and detention” of Navalny, who was taken into custody earlier this month upon his return to Russia from Germany, where he had recuperated after a poisoning attempt blamed on the Russian state.

Kremlin warns against pro-Navalny street protests

The last reported call between Trump and Putin was July 23, following news reports that Russian intelligence had offered the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Asked in an interview with Axios whether he had raised the subject with Putin, Trump said it was “a phone call to discuss other things. And frankly, that’s an issue that many people said was fake news.”

He then complained that “nobody ever brings up China. They always bring up Russia, Russia, Russia.”

John Hudson in Washington and Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow contributed to this report.