On his sixth day in office, President Joe Biden called Russia’s Vladimir Putin and read a long list of policy grievances with Moscow, from Ukraine’s sovereignty to American election security — and “to make clear” that the United States will act to defend itself and its allies against “malign actions by Russia,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
The call marked a sea change from four years of Donald Trump’s personal acquiescence to and defense of Putin. Yet even under Trump, U.S. diplomats, military leaders, and other government agencies continued to challenge and confront Russian aggression. How Biden’s relationship and policies toward Putin will actually differ from Trump’s is among the most hotly anticipated questions in U.S. foreign policy.
On their call, Biden and Putin discussed extending the New START nuclear treaty for five years by the Feb. 5 deadline and “agreed to explore strategic stability discussions on a range of arms control and emerging security issues,” according to a White House readout.
“Biden reaffirmed the United States’ firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. He also raised other matters of concern, including the SolarWinds hack, reports of Russia placing bounties on United States soldiers in Afghanistan, interference in the 2020 United States election, and the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny,” it said.
It’s customary for new U.S presidents to call or receive calls from world leaders, beginning with America’s closest allies. Last week, Biden placed his first official calls to Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. (In November 2016, then-President-elect Trump broke protocol and ruffled feathers by placing his first calls in unexpected order. He called Ireland before the United Kingdom, and he called the president of Taiwan, considered at the time to be a deliberate provocation against Beijing.)
On Monday evening, Biden spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who said they discussed “dealing with a more assertive Russia,” among other topics. Stoltenberg also received the first foreign phone call placed by Lloyd Austin, shortly after the defense secretary was sworn in on Friday.
This weekend, Biden also spoke with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and with France’s President Emmanuel Macron. The White House readout of the latter call said the two leaders spoke of China, the Middle East, and Russia, but the French government’s readout of the same call left China and Russia out. On Monday, Biden spoke with Germany’s Angela Merkel. In nearly all of them, the White House’s description of the calls indicate that Biden and foreign leaders expressed a renewed commitment to cooperation, a break from Trump’s more aggressive personal approach and “America First” policy.