On January 26, Joe Biden spoke for the first time with Vladimir Putin as President of the United States. The two had known each other for years, but their conversation does not seem to have been a discussion between two friends meeting again, or an exchange of pleasantries between the heads of two states who want to make a first contact and test the waters.
A dry statement and five problematic issues
The White House summed up the first conversation between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in just 144 words. Those who drafted the communiqué did not waste time with the usual diplomatic politeness. A dry introduction announces that a conversation has taken place (13 words), an equally dry conclusion (12 words) says that the two presidents have agreed to maintain a "transparent and consistent" communication. 44 words are related to the extension of the New START, the treaty on reducing the number of nuclear warheads, and arms control - an old story, dating back to the Cold War, when both the US and the USSR understood that the arms race had gone too far and there were enough nuclear warheads for the Earth to be destroyed several times.
The rest of the communiqué - 75 words, i.e. more than half of it - is dedicated to current issues in the relations with Russia. The problematic files are practically machine-gunned: Ukraine, the SolarWinds cyber-attack, the rewards offered by the Russians for killing American soldiers in Afghanistan, the interference in the 2020 elections, the poisoning of Alexei Navalny. 46 words. Then, a dry warning, caught in a concise phrase: "President Biden made it 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." Basically, Joe Biden told Vladimir Putin, this time directly and as president of the United States, that he intended to keep his promises and take a firmer stance on Moscow than his predecessor.
"I don't think you have a soul." Why Biden has no reason to like Putin.
Donald Trump has repeatedly and openly expressed his sympathy - or even admiration - for the Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was not - at least not officially - a friendly relationship like the one that George W. Bush had with the Kremlin boss in his first years in office. W. was pleasantly impressed by Putin's firm reaction to the 9/11 attacks and viewed him as a partner in the global war on terrorism, who was also facing problems at home with Muslim radicalism. At the time, it was not clear what the Putin regime really stood for, even though alarm bells had been sounded in Chechnya and with the Kursk submarine tragedies and, in 2002, when the siege of the Moscow theater took place.
When Trump came to power, however, it had become pretty clear what Russia meant - an authoritarian regime with a leader who would not let go of power, assassinated opponents and journalists, Georgia and Ukraine, two countries that had sought to escape Russia’s sphere of influence, attacked, an aggressive behavior even towards NATO member states - Estonia had even been the target of a real cyber war. Last but not least, Russia had also interfered in the American election process to favour Trump and had connections with people around him; all these aspects, combined, prevented a closer relationship between the White House and the Kremlin, no matter how much the American or Russian president wanted it.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, starts from a completely different position. The Obama administration, of which he was a part, was not at all pleased with Putin, and the attempt to reset relations with Russia took place when Vladimir Vladimirovich switched places with Medvedev and it was believed that the latter held at least part of the levers of power. Even as a member of the Democratic Party, Biden has no reason to sympathize with Putin, given that Hillary Clinton lost the election as a result of Russia's involvement in the campaign.
Finally, Joe Biden does not seem to like Putin as a human being either: he himself said at one point that during a visit to Moscow, when he was vice president, he looked Putin in the eye very closely, and told him: “Mr. Prime Minister [it was when Putin had switched places with Medvedev] I don't think you have a soul." Biden's account has not been commented on by the Kremlin, so no one but those present in Putin's office at the time know what was said in that office (especially since American journalists noted that the words made reference to a famous statement by George W. Bush, who’d said that he looked Putin in the eye and saw a soul there). What is relevant, however, is the when the story appeared in the press - a few days after the Malaysia Airlines 17 plane was shot down over eastern Ukraine by a rocket fired by Kremlin-backed separatist rebels; Putin had at least some indirect moral responsibility in that massacre.Probably the "sympathy" is mutual: while most heads of state and government in the world rushed to congratulate Joe Biden on his election victory in the first hours after the results were announced, long before they were officially validated, Putin waited a month and a half before doing so.
Russian cyber attacks and the threat of an American retaliation
An extremely important point in the January 26 conversation is the reference to the cyber-mega-attack known as SolarWinds, named after an IT company whose products were hacked so as to transport malware to users who downloaded updates. The hackers managed to access - for at least nine months - American institutions, including the agency in charge of the US nuclear arsenal and companies such as Microsoft. Not only Americans are among SolarWinds' 300,000 customers, but also NATO, the European Parliament, the British NHS and companies like AstraZeneca, which produces a vaccine against the new coronavirus - although it's not yet clear how big the impact of the attack really was. In December, the phrase "act of war" was also used in relation to SolarWinds, although this was probably an exaggeration. However, it is clear that the attack was as serious as possible, much more serious, for example, than the one that targeted the servers of the Democratic Party in 2016, because this time it was about the national security of the United States - no one wants to find out the nuclear secrets of a country just for the sake of publishing them on the internet.
Joe Biden seems to have taken it seriously. In December, when he learned that he would take over the presidency of the United States in a month, he said that after arriving at the White House, his administration would give a mirror answer as soon as it became clear what the impact of SolarWinds was. Biden also stated then that, in his opinion, that attack bore all the marks of a Russian action. The fact that he brought SolarWinds into question in his first conversation with Putin shows that he is not willing to deal indulgently with such actions in the future. As for the reprisals he mentioned, things are a little more complicated here. First of all, as head of state, Biden probably has to take into account a multitude of factors that are not necessarily taken into account when a politician makes a statement.
Secondly, even if there is a retaliation, we might not even know it because such cyber actions do not take place in plain sight. It is clear that the United States has the capacity to launch cyber-attacks: there is a specialized command within the Pentagon and something is known about previous actions against Iran (the famous Stuxnet, developed with Israel and the cyber-attack ordered by Donald Trump in response to the downing of an American drone) and the Islamic State.
Russia also appears to have been the target of US operations that, according to the New York Times, targeted its electricity grid in 2019, and USCYBERCOM commander Paul Nakasone even warned in 2019 that there would be retaliation if someone interfered in the 2020 election process. That "someone" could mean one of four countries: China, North Korea, Iran and Russia. It is not certain that the latter heeded General Naskone's warning, as there were suspicions that some activities had taken place, even if not at the level of 2016. The most egregious case could be the scandal involving the president's son, Hunter Biden, about which former US intelligence officials said it bore all the marks of a Russian operation. In fact, Moscow's involvement in the 2020 elections was also discussed by Joe Biden in his conversation with Putin.
Limiting Russia's foreign action and supporting the opposition to the Putin regime
Biden spoke of three more cases: the rewards placed on the heads of the American military in Afghanistan, the assassination attempt on Alexei Navalny and Ukraine. The story of Afghanistan appeared last year in the New York Times, which quoted sources from the American intelligence services according to which Russian intelligence officers had allegedly offered monetary rewards to the Taliban insurgents for killing American soldiers. The Trump administration claimed he had no information of such alleged rewards, and the commander of the US forces in Afghanistan said in September that the information available so far had not convinced him that rewards had indeed been paid.
However, it is clear that there is no evidence to the contrary - otherwise Biden would not have mentioned the subject in his first discussion with Putin, more than half a year after being brought out in the press. It is far too early to estimate what the United States could do if it is confirmed that the Russians have indeed offered rewards in Afghanistan, but there are many options Washington has, from sanctions and cyber operations to similar responses in the areas in which the Russians have been allowed to operate in recent years, in the Middle East and Africa.
The concern for Navalny shows that the Biden administration does not intend to turn a blind eye when the Kremlin commits abuses. Vladimir Putin's big problem for years is that Western governments, especially the United States, and civil society do not allow him or his friends/vassals from the former CIS space to do their job quietly. Putin is obsessed with "colored revolutions", the emergence of a civil society that would threaten his power, the connection between this civil society and / or opposition and the West. Many of his actions in recent years, from interventions in Ukraine to meddling in US elections and online disinformation campaigns, can also be seen in the light of this obsession. Biden told him clearly that this problem would not go away. Just a few days later, the US embassy in Moscow tried to help pro-Navalny protesters by posting information on its website about the places and times of the protests, which obviously angered the Kremlin.
Finally, the issue of Ukraine was addressed. The communiqué mentions only respect for the country's sovereignty, but it is known how Russia violated it: by annexing Crimea and supporting the pro-Russian separatists in Donbass, militarily and politically. The intervention in Ukraine led to sanctions applied to Russia and to the consolidation of NATO's presence on the eastern flank. The inclusion of the subject on the agenda of the first telephone conversation clearly shows that Washington's positions will remain unchanged on these two issues and strengthening support for Kiev, including through arms sales, would not be out of the question. Coincidentally or not, a few days after the Biden-Putin talk, an interview was published with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who said that the first question he would ask the American leader when they spoke would be "Mr. President, why aren't we in NATO yet? ”
A “privet” like a “niet”
At the time of the conversation between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, the White House had already announced, 5 days before, through its communications director, Jen Psaki, that the president had asked the American intelligence services for complete reports on the four files: SolarWinds, the meddling into elections, "the use of chemical weapons against the leader of the opposition, Alexei Navalny" and the rewards placed on the heads of the US military in Afghanistan. Obviously, on January 26, Putin had known for a few days what Psaki had said, and Biden was aware of that. But he also wanted to tell him directly. Manly, a term that a macho like Putin would probably like. It is even more likely, however, that the message itself - and the fact that it was conveyed in such a dry statement – was by no means pleasant. Because it can in no way be interpreted as a friendly greeting from the White House. A “privet” that was actually quite clearly a “niet”.