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In first phone call, Biden warns Putin on Navalny, Ukraine, agrees on treaty extension

Joe Biden. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

U.S. President Joe Biden has spoken with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the first time since his inauguration last week, raising concerns about some of the Kremlin’s activities, including the treatment of jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny and the seizure of the Crimean peninsula.

The two men did, however, find common ground on the subject of arms control, agreeing in a January 26 phone call to extend the New START treaty ahead of its expiration early next month.

Biden, who took office on January 20, and Putin “discussed both countries’ willingness to extend New START for five years,” the White House said in a readout of the January 26 call.

“They also agreed to explore strategic stability discussions on a range of arms control and emerging security issues,” the statement said.

Despite making progress on New START, Biden “raised other matters of concern” that are likely to define the U.S. relationship with Russia in the coming months and years.

The White House said Biden reaffirmed U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of Moscow’s support for separatists in the east of the country and its continued occupation of Crimea.

The new president also brought up Russia’s suspected involvement in the massive Solar Winds hack of the U.S. government and major businesses, unverified reports that Russian intelligence may have paid bounties to militants in Afghanistan to target U.S. troops, and any interference in the 2020 election.

They also discussed the poisoning of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny amid mounting international concern over his recent arrest and the Russian government’s violent crackdown on protesters seeking his release at nationwide demonstrations on January 23.

“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.

“The two presidents agreed to maintain transparent and consistent communication going forward,” it added.

New START, the last remaining arms-control pact between Washington and Moscow, limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, deployed strategic delivery systems to 700, and provides for a verification regime.

A Kremlin readout of the phone call said the two sides exchanged diplomatic notes on extending New START before the treaty expires on February 5.

“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.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration made a late attempt to negotiate limits on other categories of nuclear weapons and add China to the treaty, stalling negotiations.

A bid to agree to a shorter extension also ran into complications, leaving the fate of the treaty to the incoming Biden administration just two weeks before its expiration.

Biden has long advocated extending the treaty even if it could not be strengthened and expanded.

Russia reiterated this month that it would welcome a five-year extension without conditions as permitted by the treaty, which was signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev while Biden was vice president.

Extending the treaty to allow time for Moscow and Washington another five years to negotiate a new verifiable arms-control arrangement will be welcomed by the United States’ European allies, which were already concerned after Trump withdrew from two other arms-control pacts.

The Kremlin said the two sides also discussed the Iran nuclear deal, the coronavirus pandemic, and economic issues.

“On the whole, the conversation between the leaders of Russia and the United States was of a businesslike and frank nature,” its statement said.