During the first phone call between President Joe Biden with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, Biden raised the sensitive issue of jailed anti-Kremlin politician Alexei Navalny.
According to the White House press read-out of the Tuesday call, "Biden raised... the poisoning of Alexei Navalny" while the president further 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."
Just before the call which Moscow had initially requested last week, Biden spoke to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to underscore the US commitment to maintaining a strong NATO military alliance.
As far as Navalny, who Germany and other European allies say was poisoned with nerve agent last August by a Russian hit squad in a botched assassination, he's now become a Western media symbol for 'resistance' to Putin, despite his being not being very well-known or influential prior to the saga which saw him life-flighted to Berlin.
Meanwhile some prior embarrassing videos featuring Navalny have come to light and are circulating among critics on social media:
Putin had previously brushed him aside as "not important enough" to be targeted in such a high level Russian intelligence plot.
But apparently Navalny is already seen as "leverage" to be used by the Biden administration. This also after widespread protests across reportedly dozens of Russian cities Saturday which demanded his immediate release (he's serving a 30-day sentence for skipping probation related to 2014 criminal case).
Other issues raised by Biden during the Putin call included the following:
- nuclear and arms reduction treaties
- firm support for Ukraine's sovereignty
- the SolarWinds hack, which US intelligence had blamed on Russia
- the "Russian bounties" story, in which it was alleged that Russian military intelligence paid Afghan insurgents to take out American troops
- ...and of course: Russian 'interference' in US elections
Biden had told reporters the night before the Putin call, "I find that we can both operate in the mutual self-interest of our countries, as a new START agreement, and make it clear to Russia that we are very concerned about their behavior, whether it's Navalny, whether it's the Solar Winds or whether it's reports of bounties on the heads of Americans in Afghanistan."
He said further according to CNN, "I have asked the agencies in question to do a thorough read for me on every one of those issues, to update me precisely where they are, and I will not hesitate to raise those issues with the Russians," he said.
Perhaps the only bright spot in terms of agreement and suggestive of a potential thaw between Washington and Moscow was Biden's broaching the timely issue of New START with Putin. The landmark nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by the two superpowers in 1991 and which took effect in 1994 is set to expire next month.
Talks between Russia and US negotiators are said to be underway, with both preliminarily agreeing to a 5-year no preconditions extension. This after the Trump administration appeared ready to let it expire, after previously dropping US participation in both the INF and Open Skies treaties.