On only its first full day in office, the Biden administration was facing its first big foreign policy test in the same place that hung over its predecessor for four years: Russia.
Living up to a campaign commitment, the White House said on Thursday it wanted a straight extension of a nuclear arms control agreement with the Kremlin that faces imminent expiry, an overture former president Donald Trump long resisted.
But the invitation from President Joe Biden to extend the so-called New Start agreement for five years was offered even as incoming officials have condemned what analysts view as some of the Kremlin’s most aggressive anti-western actions in years.
In the days leading up to Mr Biden’s inauguration, US security services uncovered a massive cyber-espionage attack on US government computers they have blamed on Russia, and Moscow at the weekend arrested Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who has accused Russian spies of nearly killing him in August.
“We are seven years into a US-Russia crisis where Washington has been on the back foot,” said Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, dating the start of current tensions between the two countries to Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
For Mr Biden, who is committed to restoring American multilateralism, extending the nuclear weapons treaty would mark a sharp break from Mr Trump, who pulled out of most remaining bilateral agreements with Moscow over the course of his presidency.
“New Start is the only remaining treaty constraining Russian nuclear forces and is an anchor of strategic stability between our two countries,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday.
Despite condemnation of Mr Navalny’s arrest and the so-called SolarWinds cyber attack, the White House has thus far stopped short of any action to punish the Kremlin.
Instead, Ms Psaki said the president had tasked the US intelligence community for its “full assessment” of both incidents — as well as over allegations of Russian interference in US elections and reports that Moscow paid local fighters to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Biden aides have signalled they would prefer to take a harder line with Moscow than either Mr Trump or Barack Obama, who started his presidency with a “reset” policy aimed at warming relations that had iced over after Russian troops invaded parts of Georgia.
Antony Blinken, Mr Biden’s pick for US secretary of state, told his Senate confirmation hearing this week that he supported providing lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia and inviting Georgia, a former Soviet republic, to join Nato — assertive policies that Mr Obama resisted.
Mr Blinken joined incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan in condemning the treatment of Mr Navalny. Mr Sullivan has called for the immediate release of Mr Navalny, who was arrested on his return to Moscow on Sunday following his recovery from nerve agent poisoning.
“[T]he perpetrators of the outrageous attack on his life must be held accountable,” Mr Sullivan wrote on Twitter.
The new administration faces a difficult balancing act, attempting to both resurrect the cold war-era security architecture Mr Trump cast aside but also hold Vladimir Putin, Russian president, responsible for his increasingly bold anti-western actions.
The risk facing Mr Biden, 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 keep things from “spinning out of control”.
But Mr Putin has only made it more difficult to find a way back to normalised relations, Mr Weiss argued, by latching on to Mr Trump’s attempts to undermine Mr Biden’s presidency from inception, adding the Kremlin kept “banging the drum” for the idea that Mr Biden’s presidency was illegitimate.
New Start may be Mr Biden’s best hope at finding a way to engage Mr Putin. Neither side needs to make any concessions to agree to a clean five-year extension of the 10-year treaty, which is due to expire on February 5.
The Trump administration repeatedly failed in its bid for a shorter extension, which it sought in order to extract concessions from Russia and enlist China’s inclusion in the deal, which remains unlikely.
“Extending the treaty’s limitations on stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons until 2026 allows time and space for our two nations to explore new verifiable arms control arrangements that could further reduce risks to Americans,” said John Kirby, the new Pentagon spokesman.
He added the US needed New Start’s intrusive inspection and notification regime, arguing that its loss would risk weakening America’s understanding of Russia’s long-range nuclear forces.
The Kremlin has already said it was 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 favour of preserving this agreement,” Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday. “If our American colleagues will 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