Biden Has First Call With Russian President Vladimir Putin

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Biden Has First Call With Russian President Vladimir Putin

WASHINGTON—The White House said Tuesday that President Biden held his first call as president with Russian President Vladimir Putin and raised concerns about issues including the detaining of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the massive SolarWinds hack and reports of Russia offering bounties on U.S. troops.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Mr. Biden reaffirmed America’s “strong support” for Ukraine’s sovereignty and addressed concerns about Russian interference in the 2020 election. The call also focused on plans to extend a U.S.-Russia nuclear arms treaty for five years.

Mr. Biden voiced criticism of Mr. Putin throughout his presidential campaign, and the call represented his first opportunity as president to seek to establish a break from the frequently warm rapport between former President Donald Trump and the Russian leader. Mr. Biden, who as vice president held a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Putin in 2011, has warned Moscow that it could face additional sanctions for election interference if it is confirmed by U.S. intelligence officials.

During Mr. Trump’s presidency, some Democratic lawmakers accused the administration of pulling its punches against Moscow, as Mr. Trump rejected intelligence findings of Kremlin election interference. But Mr. Trump countered that his administration had levied more sanctions against Russia than previous administrations.

In the days before Mr. Biden’s inauguration, the Trump administration sanctioned seven men, including several former Ukrainian officials, for allegedly interfering in U.S. elections as agents of Russia’s government by promoting theories about Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter.

The U.S. and Russia have been at odds in recent years over issues including its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, accusations that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria.

The White House said in a statement following Tuesday’s call that Mr. 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 Kremlin said in a statement that Mr. Putin told Mr. Biden that “normalization in ties between Russia and the U.S. would serve the interests of both countries, underscoring their special responsibility to maintain security and stability in the world, and the whole world.”

The Kremlin statement said the conversation was open and businesslike, and both sides agreed to maintain contact.

The Kremlin statement said the two leaders discussed the New START Treaty, Iran’s nuclear program and Ukraine but didn’t mention Mr. Navalny or the hacking attacks.

Demonstrations in support of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny sprung up across Russia Saturday, ending with the detention of over 3,000 protesters. Navalny was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from Germany. Photo: Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

Ms. Psaki said Mr. Biden had planned to raise the treatment of “peaceful protesters by Russian security forces.”

Russian police detained thousands of people during wide scale protests in support of Mr. Navalny across the country last weekend.

Mr. Navalny, an ardent critic of Mr. Putin, was arrested earlier this month after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he has accused the Kremlin of perpetrating. Russian officials have denied any role in the poisoning.

Despite the tensions, the Biden administration has sought to find common ground with Russia on the nuclear weapons pact. Mr. Biden’s administration said last week that it would seek to maintain the New START treaty as the arms control framework that has constrained U.S. and Russian long-range nuclear arsenals since it took effect in 2011.

The accord is scheduled to lapse on Feb. 5, but Washington and Moscow have sought to extend the agreement despite friction between the two countries.

The Kremlin said the two sides would finish in the coming days final steps needed to assure the treaty stayed in force. The White House said teams from both countries would “work urgently” to complete the extension by the February deadline.

The White House also said the two leaders agreed to “explore strategic stability discussions on a range of arms control and emerging security issues.”

Since Mr. Biden’s inauguration, he has asked the intelligence community to assess the recent Russian hacking, interference in the 2020 election, use of chemical weapons against Mr. Navalny and the alleged bounty program against U.S. soldiers.

The outgoing Trump administration formally stated that Russia was likely behind the massive cyberattack, a conclusion that senior officials had expressed publicly and privately. Moscow denied involvement in the SolarWinds hack.

Cybersecurity experts have said the hack amounts to one of the worst intelligence failures on record.

Mr. Biden also spoke to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during the day, discussing challenges such as “dealing with a more assertive Russia,” NATO said in a statement.

Write to Ken Thomas at ken.thomas@wsj.com

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