On January 26, 2021, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin conversed over the phone. This fact is one of the few items related to this call that no one is in disagreement over. But everything else appears to be open to interpretation and dispute.
The Russian leader was the seventh world leader formally contacted by the new American president, behind the traditional first calls made to the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Canada. America’s three main European allies—Britain, France, and Germany—were next on the list, followed by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of NATO. Was this meant to signal Putin’s “demotion” in terms of his relative importance to the United States? Or should this instead be spun as a signal honor—that Biden spoke with Putin before the leaders of China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Israel, not to mention America’s partners in central and eastern Europe? Or is it a reflection of the importance the new president places in communicating about the fate of anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, now held in custody whose arrest has sparked protests across Russia? And would Biden have talked with Putin at this point in the absence of the Navalny crisis? Finally, to what extent was the timing of the call a result of Russian entreaties?
The read-out released by the White House is remarkably sparse. One could read it as a long overdue airing of grievances against the Putin administration and the Russian state: for hacking, election interference, the reported placing of bounties on U.S. service personnel in Afghanistan, Russia’s continued role in Ukraine, and the poisoning of Navalny. The Russian readout, instead, chose to emphasize the two leaders’ discussions about the coronavirus pandemic, trade and economic matters, and the future of the Iran nuclear deal (although the Russian side also indicated Ukraine as a topic of conversation).
U.S. reporting stressed that Biden left Putin with a clear warning that, with a new administration in Washington, “America will act firmly in defense of its national interests” responding to Russian steps “that harm us or our allies.” In other words, in contrast to the previous occupant of the Oval Office, Biden and his team are prepared to respond quickly and decisively to any of Moscow’s transgressions, with American sources indicating that the Russian side was informed that additional sanctions could be imposed for Russian actions.
Russian media sources, on the other hand, emphasize what the Kremlin sees as the positive message, the declaration that both countries will work rapidly to extend the New START treaty—which implicitly recognizes, at least in the area of nuclear weapons, a degree of equality between Washington and Moscow. The statement that both countries “agreed to explore strategic stability discussions on a range of arms control and emerging security issues” is also being interpreted as the invitation to begin bilateral talks on a wide-ranging agenda. Indeed, chair of the Federation Council’s committee on defense and security Viktor Bondarev, in commenting on the Biden-Putin call, sees it as the start of a Russian-American effort to “to find common points that would facilitate further strengthening of peace and stability in the entire world.”
Of course, the Kremlin has a particular interpretation of the types of talks they want to have with Washington, a transactional discussion about quid pro quos and tradeoffs, which the Russian side was hoping (but ultimately never quite achieved) with the Trump administration. In contrast, the Biden team is likely to view any such talks with Russia as an opportunity for clear communication by the United States of steps Washington expects Russia to cease or even reverse before any discussion of normalizing U.S.-Russia relations can begin.
So it appears that the main purpose of the call was a sounding session. No matter whether we should interpret the timing as a sign of Putin’s importance in world affairs or a signaling that the Western alliance is again united after the Trump years, Putin heard directly from Biden. In addition, Putin heard from Biden not as a vice president or candidate, but as a chief executive, while Biden got the measure of Putin as Russia continues to deal with the fallout of the coronavirus, the oil price wars and protests. Other than the new START renewal, no fresh ground was broken—and we’ll have to see what the next steps of both sides will be.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and holder of the Captain Jerome E. Levy Chair in economic geography and national security. He holds non-residential fellowships with the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is a member of the Loisach Group, a collaboration between the Munich Security Conference and the Marshall Center that works to enhance U.S. and Germany’s security partnership. He is a Contributing Editor for The National Interest.