Alexey Nikolsky / Alexey Nikolsky / TASS
In his first phone call to Vladimir Putin since taking office, President Biden urged his Russian counterpart to detain a leading Kremlin critic, mass arrests of protesters and suspected Russian involvement in a massive cyber-breach in the United States.
Still, the two leaders agreed to begin renegotiating the US-Russia arms control agreement, New START, which is due to expire soon.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday that “Biden’s intention is also to make it clear that the United States will act firmly to protect our national interests in response to Russia’s vicious actions.”
U.S. intelligence agencies say the massive hack on SolarWinds was probably carried out by Russia; The finance ministry has sanctioned several Kremlin – linked politicians and entities for their disinformation efforts during the 2020 campaign; and President Biden has asked the U.S. government to investigate reports that the Kremlin has paid generously for killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Russian authorities have called the allegations that they paid generously for US troops a fraud.
Moscow’s report on the call focuses on the need to normalize relations and to working together on the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to the new START deal.
The Kremlin described the call as “businesslike and sincere.”
New START deal
Biden predicted a more confrontational tone with Putin than his predecessor. During the election debate, Biden called Trump “Putin’s puppy” for refusing to criticize the Russian leader.
Putting aside what is likely to be a complicated relationship, the two leaders discussed a five-year extension of New START, the only remaining arms control agreement that limits the nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia.
The Trump administration has tried and failed to negotiate a new deal after trying to involve China and urge Russia to agree to more. Biden and Putin will have their teams complete the extension of the deal by February 5th.
The White House said a telephone conversation with Putin included a discussion about the near-fatal poisoning and arrest of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The White House did not provide details of what Biden said about Navalny, and the Kremlin’s summary of the phone call did not mention it at all.
Mass demonstrations have erupted across Russia since January 17, when Navalny was arrested on his return to the country. He had recovered from an almost fatal poison attack in Germany. Doctors there said he had been given a version of the Soviet-made nerve agent Novichok. Navalny blamed the Kremlin for the poisoning, which Putin denied.
The State Department has demanded the release of both Navalny and more than 3,000 of his supporters who were arrested last weekend in protest of his imprisonment.
The State Department said: “Ongoing efforts to suppress Russian rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, and the crackdown on protests that followed are worrying signs of further restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms.”
Espionage of SolarWinds
Biden also picked up a huge hack on US government computers, the revelations of which were published late last year.
It is expected that 18,000 private and public users who unknowingly downloaded a tainted software update from the Texas company SolarWinds were compromised. Several US agencies were also violated, including state ministries, the Treasury, Commerce, Energy and National Security.
With the hacked program like entry point, hackers spent months researching U.S. government networks and systems of private companies around the world. Investigators say no classified information was available, but there are still fears that other sensitive information has been stolen.