Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin agree to broaden the Launch New US-Russia Agreement
Washington: On Tuesday, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin avoided a revived arms race when they officially agreed to extend their countries’ last remaining nuclear arms treaty. But White House officials said that the Kremlin chief was also questioned by Biden over the poisoning of an opposition activist and the hacking of U.S. government and private computer networks.
It was the first call since the inauguration of Biden between leaders of the world’s two largest nuclear powers. But it was watched as much for its tone as for its substance: Biden promised to make Russia “pay a price” for the hacking during the transition, and his administration, during its opening hours, requested the release of Alexei Navalny, whose arrest on 17 January sparked protests throughout Russia last weekend, resulting in over 3,000 arrests.
In essence, the call was the opening act of what the two leaders are promising to be a highly adversarial alliance, and most likely the sharpest turn in American foreign policy since Donald Trump left office a week ago.
Before the 2020 election, American CIA-led intelligence agencies assessed that Putin had a strong preference for the re-election of Trump, who had treated the Russian leader with unprecedented deference during his four years in office. On the other hand, Biden had repeatedly dubbed Putin a “KGB thug” and insulted Trump as the “puppy of Putin.” For his part, Putin had chastised Biden for his “sharp anti-Russian” words.
But in the official White House and Kremlin accounts of this first conversation, there was none of that kind of name-calling, a tempering of language that seemed to reflect the fact that both leaders understood that they could now deal with each other.
“Biden tried to deflect a question with a joke about the call, telling reporters at a White House event that Putin, whose government has jailed journalists and has been charged with worse, is “sending his best! ”
The call came at the behest of the Russians at a time when Biden is getting congratulatory calls from several national leaders, all determined to start started on a good foot with a new administration.
But the need arose immediately: the new START deal, which restricted the size of the strategic nuclear arsenals of the two countries, expired on 5 February.
The countries exchanged diplomatic notes on Monday night to extend the treaty for five years, the maximum permitted in its language. Initially, Trump had announced that he would not expand it unless China joined as well.
Immediately, the Chinese opposed the proposal and noted that Beijing had less than 300 nuclear weapons deployed. Somewhat mockingly, Chinese officials questioned if the United States and Russia would be able to cut their own arsenals by four-fifths to match the amount of China, or allow China to deploy more than 1,000 fresh arms to match the arsenals of America and Russia.
The Trump administration’s last-minute attempt to negotiate an enhancement to the treaty also failed; by that point, Putin seemed to be betting that Biden would prevail, and would want to make good on his pledge to renew the treaty of the Barack Obama period.
The treaty limits 1,550 strategic warheads to nuclear arsenals. If both countries agree, the five-year extension was included in the original document, so the Senate does not need further approval. But Putin will have to ratify the extension via the Duma he controls; the treaty itself was initially accepted 10 years earlier this week.
Putin and Biden, the Kremlin said, “voiced their satisfaction” with diplomatic initiatives taken earlier in the day to exercise the extension.
“In the coming days, the two sides will complete the procedures necessary to ensure that this important international legal mechanism continues to function in order to place mutual limits on nuclear-missile arsenals,” it added.
The extension does not include tactical nuclear weapons, nor does it reverse the decision of Trump to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Powers Agreement in the face of American allegations that Russia was in violation of its terms. There is a doubt as to whether it will include Russia’s latest class of nuclear-armed undersea drones and other weapons.
But the New START extension prevents an expensive arms race, and Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, claimed that it was easier to do so for both sides under nuclear restrictions if the country was going to confront Russia for its malicious activities.
A former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, said Tuesday that the White House was right “to engage Putin on issues of mutual interest such as the extension of the New START treaty,” while raising Russia’s “belligerent foreign policy actions” and talking “bluntly about violations of human rights within Russia.”
“The challenge, of course, is the simultaneous implementation of all three of these policy ambitions,” said McFaul, now the head of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Center for International Studies. For instance, Navalny and his team called on the West to sanction not just a handful of obscure Russian intelligence officers responsible for his poisoning and detention, but the Russian billionaires, with real assets in the West, who have made Putin’s regime possible. Is Biden going to go that far? Let’s see it.’
Not surprisingly, there was no mention in the Russian account of the conversation of Navalny, who survived the poisoning, or of the substantial proof that the attack was the work of Russian intelligence. The omission was seized on by Navalny’s allies as evidence of Putin’s brittleness.
Leonid Volkov, a close aide to Navalny, posted on Twitter: “Putin always lies, about everything, to the last.”
With Putin, Biden also boosted the highly advanced hacking of US government and private networks, dubbed “SolarWinds,” after the name of the Texas-based company whose network management program was one way to access 18,000 networks by Russian hackers. Although Biden ordered a broad intelligence assessment and vowed that Russia would pay a price for the operation, the White House did not provide any specifics about what he was saying or threatening.
Biden also increased American intelligence assessments of Russia putting bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan, as well as what White House officials said was “interference in the election of the United States in 2020.”
“Biden made clear that in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies, the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests,” the White House statement said. “The two presidents agreed to keep the communication going forward transparent and consistent.”
For its part, the Kremlin said that Putin “noted that normalizing the relationship between Russia and the United States would be in the interest of both countries and of the entire international community, given their special responsibility for security and stability in the world.”