Joe Biden raises US election interference in first phone call with Vladimir Putin

Then-Vice President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2011. Credit: AP

US President Joe Biden has held his first phone conversation with Russian leader Vladimir Putin as he discussed election interference in the US elections.

According to the White House, Biden raised interference in the 2016 and 2020 US elections and also raised concerns about the arrest of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and reports of Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and Putin’s best-known critic, was arrested January 17 as he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had spent nearly five months recovering from nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin.

Biden has previously condemned the use of chemical weapons, but Russian authorities deny the accusations.

Alexei Navalny inside the plane prior to his flight to Moscow. Credit: AP

“President Biden 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,” the White House said.

Meanwhile the Kremlin focused on Putin’s response to Biden’s proposal to extend the last remaining US-Russia arms control treaty.

While the readouts from the two capitals emphasised different elements, they both suggested that US-Russia relations will be guided, at least at the beginning of the Biden administration, by a desire to do no harm but also no urgency to repair existing damage.

Unlike his immediate predecessors, including Trump who was enamoured of Putin and frequently undercut his own administration's tough stance on Russia, Biden has not held out hope for a “reset” in relations.

Instead he's indicated he wants to manage differences without necessarily resolving them or improving ties and with a heavy domestic agenda and looming decisions needed on Iran and China, a direct confrontation with Russia is not likely something he seeks.

The Kremlin described the talk as 'frank and businesslike'. Credit: AP

The two presidents agreed to have their teams work urgently to complete a five-year extension of the New START nuclear weapons treaty that expires next month. Former President Donald Trump's administration had withdrawn from two arms control treaties with Russia and had been prepared to let New START lapse.

Although the leaders agreed to work together to extend New START before it expires on Feb. 5 and to look at other areas of potential strategic cooperation, the White House said Biden was firm on U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, while Russia is supporting separatists in the country's east.

The Kremlin's readout of the call did not address the most contentious issues between the countries, though it said the leaders also discussed other “acute issues on the bilateral and international agenda.”

It described the talk as “frank and businesslike” — often a diplomatic way of referring to tense discussions.

It also said Putin congratulated Biden on becoming president and “noted that normalization of ties between Russia and the United States would serve the interests of both countries."