Details of Biden's call with Putin remain vague

Yesterday, I previewed the phone call between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President/Dictator Vladimir Putin. We had been informed in advance of some of the main talking points Biden allegedly planned to address, but how he was going to handle the cantankerous Russian when he inevitably stonewalled him remained a mystery. Well, the call took place on schedule and the White House provided an update. Sadly, not much detail was provided. It’s really amazing how Biden seems to be able to have a strategically critical call such as this one without anything leaking out immediately, unlike many of Trump’s calls that wound up on the front page of the New York Times via “unnamed sources” before the parties had hung up. But between a few sources both in America and Europe, we’re at least getting some sense of what went on. (WaPo)

President Biden laid out a bill of complaint against Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, airing allegations of human rights abuses, cyberspying and more while making a hard pivot away from the deference that former president Donald Trump often displayed toward Russia.

The phone call less than a week into Biden’s term was his first known contact with an adversarial foreign leader. It came as the United States has joined European nations and others in condemning the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and after a crackdown on street protests.

Biden’s agenda for the call included protest of “ongoing Russian aggression” against Ukraine, and he confronted Putin over the “Solar Winds” espionage case, alleged interference in U.S. elections and the alleged offer to pay bounties for the deaths of U.S. troops serving in Afghanistan, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

Take note of the last four words in that excerpt from the WaPo. “Jen Psaki said Tuesday.” That’s where the Washington Post (along with everyone else) got their “impressions” or “descriptions” of the call. The Post paints a glowing picture of our tough-guy president reading Putin the riot act on the same list of subjects I previewed yesterday. Now let’s contrast that with the report on the call issued by the Kremlin.

The Kremlin also released a readout of the call between the two leaders. It did not mention the issues Psaki listed and took an optimistic tone about cooperation under Biden’s presidency.

“The presidents expressed their satisfaction with today’s exchange of the diplomatic notes of having reached an agreement to extend the New START,” the statement said. “Over the next few days the two sides will finalize all procedures necessary for further functioning of this important mechanism of international law on the mutual limitation of nuclear missile arsenals.”

Granted, if there was any discussion of Navalny, Solar Winds or bounties on American soldiers in Afghanistan, I certainly wouldn’t put it past Putin to have such material eliminated from the report. He typically bats such allegations away by describing them as “nonsense” and moves on. But if had to take a hard line with Biden, he very well could have played that up to maintain his own strongman image.

We obviously don’t have and are unlikely to get a transcript of the call, but you can at least read a transcript of Jen Psaki’s answers about it for reporters at this NPR article.

I don’t want to give anyone the impression that we should have a complete transcript of any of Biden’s calls with other world leaders. Diplomacy is a hard enough game to play as it is, particularly in the current global environment. Sometimes leaders need some private time to smooth out some of the bumps in the road without the media blasting and overanalyzing their every word. But no such favors were done for the last president regarding some of his calls if it looked like the discussions offered any political grist to grind in the MSM. Biden is once again being shown more deference.

As to the call itself, it’s probably less important to know what was said than how it was said. The WaPo talks about a “bill of complaint” and “protests” against various Russian mendacities, contrasting that to their ongoing portrayal of Donald Trump as some sort of Kremlin mole. But even if we take Psaki’s report at face value, it leaves many questions. There’s a very large difference between these two hypothetical “complaints.”

BIDEN: “You need to own up to ordering the poisoning attack on Alexei Navalny, release him and his followers from jail and start respecting the rights of the Russian people.”

PUTIN: “That’s outrageous. We were not involved in the incident and the current charges he’s facing are legitimate.”


BIDEN: “What’s going on with this Navalny situation? A lot of our people are concerned about it.”

PUTIN: “That’s an internal Russian affair and it’s really none of your concern.”

BIDEN: “Okey dokey. So you want to talk about this arms treaty?”

Which one was it? Again, we’ll probably never know. But it does at least sound like they managed to extend the New START deal, so I suppose that’s better than nothing.