Biden presses Putin against Navalny in first talks with Russian leader

President Joe Biden signaled a tougher US stance in Russia on Tuesday in his first telephone conversation with President Vladimir Putin, raising concerns about human rights and “aggression” against Ukraine, but welcomed cooperation on a new nuclear deal.

The call was initiated by the White House to discuss progress in extending the new START deal, which limits the two powers to a maximum of 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads each and expires on February 5. An agreement now seems to be close.

But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden also raised a number of concerns about Russian authorities’ treatment of opposition members, including “the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.”

The opposition leader and anti-corruption activist died almost last year from a poisoning that he says he has proven was carried out by the security services, something that Putin denies. Navalny is currently imprisoned in Moscow and over the weekend, police made mass arrests of people demonstrating in his support across the country.

To show Moscow and Washington can still work separately on nuclear issues, the White House said Biden and Putin had agreed to “work urgently” to conclude negotiations on a new five-year term for the new START treaty before it expires.

The Kremlin said Putin and Biden in their talks “expressed satisfaction” with the talks and that the Russian leader later presented a bill to parliament on the five-year extension.

In Washington, a State Department official who asked not to be identified said the two sides had “reached an agreement … to move quickly to conclude such an agreement before February 5.”

The movements raised hopes for more stability between the world’s two strongest armed nations and draw a line under the uncertainty that prevails under Donald Trump, whom Biden replaced just last week.

The Trump administration had offered a one-year extension before the February deadline, but discussions broke with the US insistence on a tougher verification that Russia had frozen its nuclear arsenal.

Human Rights

But Biden also diverged strongly with Trump on his stance on Russia’s human rights and Ukraine.

Trump went to great lengths while in power to avoid complaining about human rights abuses in Russia or criticizing Moscow’s support for separatists in Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea. Biden confronted Putin on both issues.

He noted “our strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression,” Psaki said.

She also listed a long sequence of other “issues” that caused friction in Washington.

These included the unprecedented mass hacking of US computers that has been blamed by Russia, interference in the 2020 presidential election and reports that Moscow offered bounties for the killing of US troops in Afghanistan.

In addition to addressing Navalny’s case, Biden flagged “the treatment of peaceful protesters by Russian security forces.”

Psaki said Biden’s “intention was also to make it clear that the United States will act decisively to defend our national interests in response to malicious actions by Russia.”

The Kremlin did not mention these complaints in its reading of the conversation, saying instead that Putin called for “normalization of relations.”

This would “meet the interests of both countries,” the Kremlin said in a statement, describing the two countries as “specifically responsible for maintaining security and stability in the world.”