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First Biden-Putin Call Shows Caution   01/27 06:15

   

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir 
Putin held their first conversation as counterparts Tuesday in a phone call 
that underscored troubled relations and the delicate balance between the former 
Cold War foes.

   According to the White House, Biden raised concerns about the arrest of 
opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Russia's alleged involvement in a massive 
cyber espionage campaign and reports of Russian bounties on American troops in 
Afghanistan. The Kremlin, meanwhile, focused on Putin's response to Biden's 
proposal to extend the last remaining U.S.-Russia arms control treaty.

   While the readouts from the two capitals emphasized different elements, they 
both suggested that U.S-Russia relations will be guided, at least at the 
beginning of the Biden administration, by a desire to do no harm but also no 
urgency to repair existing damage.

   The two presidents agreed to have their teams work urgently to complete a 
five-year extension of the New START nuclear weapons treaty that expires next 
month. Former President Donald Trump's administration had withdrawn from two 
arms control treaties with Russia and had been prepared to let New START lapse.

   Unlike his immediate predecessors --- including Trump, who was enamored of 
Putin and frequently undercut his own administration's tough stance on Russia 
--- Biden has not held out hope for a "reset" in relations. Instead he has 
indicated he wants to manage differences 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 likely something Biden seeks.

   Although the leaders agreed to work together to extend New START before it 
expires Feb. 5 and to look at other areas of potential strategic cooperation, 
the White House said Biden was firm on U.S. support for Ukraine's sovereignty, 
while Russia is supporting separatists in the country's east.

   Biden also raised the SolarWinds cyberhack, which has been attributed to 
Russia, reports of Russian bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan, 
interference in the 2020 U.S. election, the poisoning of Navalny and the 
weekend crackdown on Navalny's supporters.

   "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 White House said. Biden told Putin in the phone call, first 
reported by The Associated Press, that the U.S. would defend itself and take 
action, which could include further sanctions, to ensure Moscow does not act 
with impunity, officials said.

   Moscow had reached out last week to request the call, according to U.S. 
officials familiar with the matter but not authorized to discuss it publicly. 
Biden agreed, but he wanted first to prepare with his staff and speak with 
European allies, including the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, which he 
did.

   Before he spoke to Putin, Biden also called NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg to 
pledge U.S. commitment to the decades-old alliance founded as a bulwark against 
Russian aggression.

   The Kremlin's readout of the call did not address the most contentious 
issues between the countries, though it said the leaders also discussed other 
"acute issues on the bilateral and international agenda."

   It described the talk as "frank and businesslike" --- often a diplomatic way 
of referring to tense discussions. It also said Putin congratulated Biden on 
becoming president and "noted that normalization of ties between Russia and the 
United States would serve the interests of both countries."

   Among the issues the Kremlin said were discussed were the coronavirus 
pandemic, the Iran nuclear agreement, Ukraine and issues related to trade and 
the economy.

   The call came as Putin considers the aftermath of pro-Navalny protests that 
took place in more than 100 Russian cities over the weekend. 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 best-known critic, was 
arrested Jan. 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. Biden has previously condemned the use of chemical weapons.

   Russian authorities deny the accusations.

   Just from the public accounts, Biden's discussion with Putin appeared 
diametrically opposed to Trump's relationship with the Russian president.

   Trump had seemed to seek Putin's approval, frequently casting doubt on 
Russian interference in the 2016 elections, including when he stood next to 
Putin at their 2018 summit in Helsinki. He also downplayed Russia's involvement 
in the hack of federal government agencies last year and the allegations that 
Russia offered the Taliban bounties.

   Still, despite that conciliatory approach, Trump's administration toed a 
tough line against Moscow, imposing sanctions on the country, Russian companies 
and business leaders for issues including Ukraine, energy supplies and attacks 
on dissidents.

   Biden, in his call with Putin, broke sharply with Trump by declaring that he 
knew that Russia attempted to interfere with both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. 
elections.

 
 
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