Joe Biden warned Vladimir Putin that the US would respond to “malign actions” by Russia as the two presidents closed in on a crucial nuclear weapons deal during their first phone call.
According to the White House’s account of the call held on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Biden and Mr Putin discussed a five-year extension of the New Start arms control treaty, agreeing “to have their teams work urgently to complete the extension” before its expiry on February 5.
The White House said that Mr Biden had also raised a number of issues that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had been reluctant to bring up with his Russian counterpart, drawing criticism for being too cosy with Mr Putin.
Mr Biden “reaffirmed” America’s “strong support” for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and addressed the SolarWinds hack, the bounties placed on US soldiers in Afghanistan, interference in the 2020 election, and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the White House said.
“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 two presidents agreed to maintain transparent and consistent communication going forward,” it added.
New Start, which was signed in 2011 and was set to expire on February 5, is the last main bilateral defence treaty still in force between the two former cold war foes, following a series of withdrawals from other pacts under the Trump administration.
Securing an extension to the treaty, which caps the number of nuclear warheads held by both countries, was seen as a key test of the new Biden administration’s ability to work with Mr Putin. Analysts had forecast that its expiry could kickstart an expensive and potentially dangerous new nuclear arms race.
The Kremlin said in a statement on the conversation that the two countries had exchanged diplomatic notes confirming an extension to the New Start treaty.
“In the coming days, the parties will complete all the necessary procedures to ensure the further functioning of this important international legal mechanism for the mutual limitation of nuclear missile arsenals,” the Kremlin said.
“Vladimir Putin congratulated Joseph Biden on the beginning of his work as President of the United States,” the Kremlin readout stated.
“He noted that the normalisation of relations between Russia and the United States would meet the interests of both countries and, taking into account their special responsibility for maintaining security and stability in the world, the entire international community.”
“On the whole, the conversation between the leaders of Russia and the United States was of a businesslike and frank nature. It was agreed to maintain contacts,” the Kremlin added.
Relations between Washington and Moscow have grown increasingly testy since Mr Biden took office, as highlighted by the US state department’s condemnation of the “harsh tactics” used by Russian authorities against protesters and journalists at the weekend.
“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release of Alexei Navalny,” the state department had said. “The United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defence of human rights — whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat.”
In a briefing with reporters on Tuesday, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Mr Biden had also raised the treatment of protesters during his call with Mr Putin.