On its first full day in office, the Biden administration faced its first major foreign policy test in the same place that hung over its predecessor for four years: Russia.
True to a campaign pledge, the White House said on Thursday it wanted a direct extension of a nuclear arms control deal with the Kremlin that is likely to expire imminently, an opening to which former President Donald Trump has long resisted.
But President Joe Biden’s invitation to extend the so-called New Start deal for five years was offered even as new officials condemned what analysts consider one of the most important in the Kremlin. aggressive anti-western actions in years.
In the days leading up to Mr. Biden’s inauguration, US security services discovered a massive cyber espionage attack on the US government computers they have. blamed on Russia, and Moscow on the weekend stopped Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who accused Russian spies of nearly killing him in August.
“We are seven years into a US-Russian crisis where Washington has been on the foot,” said Andrew Weiss, an expert on Russia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, dating the start of the current tensions between the two countries at the annexation of Moscow in 2014. of Crimea.
For Mr. Biden, who is committed to restoring American multilateralism, the extension of the nuclear weapons treaty would mark a clean break with Mr. Trump, who withdrew from most of the remaining bilateral deals with Moscow during his presidency.
“New Start is the only treaty remaining binding the Russian nuclear forces and constitutes an anchor of the strategic stability between our two countries”, declared Thursday Jen Psaki, the press secretary of the White House.
Despite the condemnation of the arrest of Mr. Navalny and the so-called SolarWinds Cyberattack, the White House has so far halted any action aimed at punishing the Kremlin.
Instead, Ms Psaki said the president tasked the US intelligence community with “carrying out a full assessment” of the two incidents – as well as allegations of Russian interference in the US elections and reports that Moscow had paid local fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Biden aides have indicated they would rather take a tougher line with Moscow than either Mr. Trump or Barack Obama, who started his presidency with a policy of “reset” aimed at warming relations that had frozen over after the Russian troops invaded parts of Georgia.
Antony Blinken, Mr Biden’s choice for US Secretary of State, told his Senate confirmation hearing this week that he supported the supply of lethal weapons to Ukraine in defense against Russia and calling on Georgia, a former Soviet republic, to join NATO – assertive policies that Obama resisted.
Mr Blinken joined with new National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in condemning Mr Navalny’s treatment. Mr Sullivan has called for the immediate release of Mr Navalny, who was arrested on his return to Moscow on Sunday after recovering from nerve agent poisoning.
“[T]The perpetrators of the scandalous attack on his life must be held responsible, ”Sullivan wrote on Twitter.
The new administration faces a difficult balance, attempting both to resuscitate the Cold War-era security architecture that Mr Trump sidelined, but also to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for his actions. increasingly daring anti-Western policies.
The risk Mr Biden faces, Mr Weiss said, was that Russia would become “more dangerous and unpredictable” in the face of new American pressure, and the best the new president could hope for was to try to prevent that. things are “spinning out of control”. “.
But Mr Putin has only made it more difficult to find a way to return to normalized relations, Mr Weiss argued, by clinging to Mr Trump’s attempts to undermine Mr Biden’s presidency. since its inception, adding that the Kremlin continued to “beat the drum” for the idea that Biden’s presidency was illegitimate.
New Start may be Mr Biden’s best hope for finding a way to hire Mr Putin. Neither side needs to make any concessions to agree to a net five-year extension of the 10-year treaty, which is due to expire on February 5.
The Trump administration has repeatedly failed in its bid for a shorter extension, which it sought to extract concessions from Russia and secure the inclusion of China in the deal, which remains unlikely.
“The extension of the Strategic Nuclear Stockpile Treaty limits until 2026 leaves time and space for our two countries to explore new verifiable arms control arrangements that could further reduce risks to Americans Said John Kirby, the new Pentagon spokesperson.
He added that the United States needed New Start’s intrusive inspection and notification regime, arguing that its loss would risk weakening the US understanding of Russia’s long-range nuclear forces.
The Kremlin has already said it is ready to extend New Start. Last year, Mr. Putin offered Mr. Trump a one-year extension with no new conditions.
“Russia and its president are in favor of preserving this agreement,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Wednesday. “If our American colleagues demonstrate the political will to preserve this pact by extending it, this can only be welcomed.”
Additional reporting by Henry Foy in Moscow and Lauren Fedor in Washington