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In First Official Call, Biden And Putin Discuss Cyberattack, Arms Deal


In a much-anticipated phone call, President Biden has spoken with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. On that call, they agreed to extend a key arms control agreement, but it was also a chance for Biden to raise a whole list of other concerns, according to spokesperson Jen Psaki.


JEN PSAKI: Including the SolarWinds hack, reports of Russia placing bounties on United States soldiers in Afghanistan, interference in the 2020 election, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and treatment of peaceful protesters by Russian security forces.

CHANG: NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen joins us now to go through this very long list. Hey, Michele.


CHANG: All right. Let's begin with this arms control deal. What exactly did Biden and Putin agree to?

KELEMEN: So they agreed to get their teams working right away to extend the New START agreement by five years. It's an agreement that's about to expire, so time was ticking. New START is the only remaining arms control deal that caps U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. The Trump administration tried but failed to negotiate a new deal. First, they wanted China involved. Then they wanted a shorter extension to get more out of Russia. The Biden team came in and made clear, you know, let's just extend this deal as it's allowed under the treaty and get to work on the many other disagreements that the U.S. has with Russia.

CHANG: All right. Well, let's talk about some of those. In her comments today, Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that Biden talked to Putin about Alexei Navalny. He's the opposition leader who returned to Russia only to be detained there now. Is this a change in tone from the Trump administration?

KELEMEN: Yeah, it is. I mean, the Trump administration did criticize Russia for a nerve agent attack that almost killed Navalny. But Trump himself never publicly criticized Putin for anything. And the White House rarely said anything about repression in Russia. Now you have an administration that's speaking out more forcefully. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, who, by the way, was just confirmed today, was asked about Navalny last week at his confirmation hearing. Just listen to what he had to say.


ANTONY BLINKEN: It is extraordinary how frightened Vladimir Putin seems to be of one man. I think that speaks volumes.

KELEMEN: So the State Department was quick to respond to the Kremlin's crackdown on Navalny supporters over the weekend. And today, the U.S. joined other G-7 partners in urging Russia to release the many Russian protesters who were arrested. And they called Navalny's detention deplorable, so definitely a change in tone here.

CHANG: Interesting. Well, has Russia said anything so far about this call?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, the Kremlin did not mention Navalny in its readout, as you can imagine. Instead, it focused on the need to normalize relations, to work together on things like the coronavirus pandemic or the economy and the extension of New START, as we mentioned. The Kremlin said the two men discussed the Iran nuclear deal, the one Trump left, and it described the conversation - and this was the quote - as "businesslike and sincere."

CHANG: All right. Let's go back to some of the other issues that Biden raised in this phone call - the SolarWinds hack, for example. What is Biden doing about that?

KELEMEN: Mostly reviewing his options at the moment. A lot of experts see that hack as a successful espionage operation by Russia. So the Biden administration needs to figure out how much damage was done. Biden has asked his intelligence chiefs to review that and to review the reports that the Russians offered bounties on U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That's another story that was sort of brushed off by the Trump administration but seems to be taken more seriously now. And I'll just say one other thing. You know, when Mitt Romney ran against Obama, he called Russia America's No. 1 geopolitical foe. He got a lot of flak for it from Democrats. Blinken told senators that Romney was prescient when it comes to the challenges posed by Russia, and this administration's going to take it seriously.

CHANG: That is NPR's Michele Kelemen.

Thank you, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.