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Biden presses Putin on Navalny arrest and pushes arms treaty in first phone call

Protesters demand Alexey Navalny's release
Protesters demand Alexey Navalny's release 09:11

Washington — President Joe Biden had his first call with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, in which he raised concerns about the arrest of opposition figure Alexey Navalny while pressing the Russian president on his nation's involvement in a massive cyberespionage campaign and bounties on American troops in Afghanistan, the White House said.

"They discussed both countries' willingness to extend New START for five years, agreeing to have their teams work urgently to complete the extension by February 5," a readout from the White House said, referring to an arms control treaty that expires early next month. Mr. Biden expressed "strong support for Ukraine's sovereignty in the face of Russia's ongoing aggression."

The president also raised thornier issues, including "the SolarWinds hack, reports of Russia placing bounties on United States soldiers in Afghanistan, interference in the 2020 United States election, and the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny," according to the White House. 

"President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies," the readout said, adding that the leaders "agreed to maintain transparent and consistent communication going forward."

Mr. Biden has looked to establish a sharp break from the warm rhetoric often displayed toward Putin by his predecessor, Donald Trump. But the new president also looked to preserve room for diplomacy, telling the Russian leader that the two nations should finalize the arms control treaty before it expires early next month, two senior administration officials told The Associated Press.

Unlike his immediate predecessors, Mr. Biden has not held out hope for a "reset" in relations with Russia but has instead indicated he wants to manage differences with the former Cold War foe without necessarily resolving them or improving ties. And, with a heavy domestic agenda and looming decisions needed on Iran and China, a direct confrontation with Russia is not something he seeks.

Moscow reached out last week to request the call, according to the officials. Mr. Biden agreed but wanted first to prepare with his staff and speak with European allies, including the leaders of the Britain, France and Germany.

And on Tuesday before his call with Putin, Mr. Biden spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, pledging the United States' commitment to the decades-old alliance founded as a bulwark against Russian aggression.

Mr. Biden told Putin that his administration was assessing the SolarWinds breach and the press allegations that Russia offered the Taliban bounties to kill American troops in Afghanistan. Mr. Biden said the United States is willing to defend itself and will take action, which could include further sanctions, to ensure that Moscow does not act with impunity, according to the administration officials.

The call came as Putin considers the aftermath of pro-Navalny protests that took place in more than 100 Russian cities over the weekend. Mr. Biden's team has already reacted strongly to the crackdown on the protests, in which more than 3,700 people were arrested across Russia, including more than 1,400 in Moscow. More protests are planned for the coming weekend.

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and Putin's fiercest critic, was arrested January 17 as he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had spent nearly five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Mr. Biden has previously condemned the use of chemical weapons. Russian authorities deny the accusations.

Mr. Biden on Monday told reporters he hoped the U.S. and Russia could cooperate in areas where both see benefit.

"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," Biden said.

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