LONDON – The tens of thousands of protesters who flooded the streets of Russia this weekend not only put pressure on Vladimir Putin, but they also put another president on the spot: Joe Biden.
Biden’s new foreign policy team is grappling with a myriad of domestic and foreign challenges – not the least of which is what to do about the Kremlin strongman.
At first glance, it appears that the new team at the head of the State Department are mocking the protests, which follow Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny’s poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok in August and upon his return. provocative in Russia this month. Hours after the first arrests on Russian streets on Saturday, US officials said Washington condemned “harsh tactics against protesters and journalists.”
Biden spoke with Putin on Tuesday for the first time as president and raised concerns about the Kremlin’s treatment of Navalny, according to the White House, as well as other matters.
“President Biden has made it clear that the United States will act firmly to defend its national interests in response to Russian actions that harm us or our allies,” the White House said.
The Kremlin’s reading of the leadership appeal did not mention Navalny.
Russian authorities not only arrested Navalny on his return from Germany, where he was evacuated for treatment after his poisoning; they also arrested more than 3,700 protesters and members of the media who took to the streets on Saturday in the biggest protest of discontent the country has seen in years.
Navalny’s detention prompted Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan to demand his immediate release. Sullivan called the Kremlin’s attacks on Navalny “an affront to the Russian people who want their voice to be heard.”
“The State Department’s swift reaction has been recorded here as a sign that the Biden administration is going to actively interfere in Russian politics,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, said on Monday.
The Kremlin is “preparing for this,” he said.
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On Saturday, tens of thousands of people across Russia braved freezing temperatures, the Covid-19 pandemic, and multiple warnings from authorities to show support for Navalny, who has long been the Kremlin’s loudest critic, and to protest corruption among the ruling elites, including Putin. himself.
Days earlier, Navalny’s team released the report of an investigation, which has now been viewed more than 91 million times, which allegedly showed bribery schemes involving Putin. On Monday, Putin denied the allegations.
When asked if he is considering sanctions against those involved in the poisoning and arrest of Navalny, Biden told reporters on Monday that Washington and Moscow can cooperate in areas of mutual interest but his administration can also “make Russia understand that we are very concerned about the situation.” their behavior “- whether Navalny or any other point of tension.
Putin is preparing for Biden’s team to be more assertive towards Russia than its predecessors, including in its support for Navalny, said Mark Galeotti, professor at University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies and associate researcher principal at Royal United. Services Institute, a London think tank.
The Kremlin’s efforts are “the reason why we have seen a particularly rapid and, frankly, toxic propaganda campaign launched to precisely portray Navalny as a bought and paid CIA agent,” Galeotti said. “They’re trying to pre-position themselves, so they can say, ‘Aha, you see, we’ve told you that’s what’s going on – the State Department is coming to support its allies.’ “
With Navalny in custody and facing years in prison in an old criminal case that has been revived against him, his supporters have vowed to take to the streets again this weekend to keep pressure on the government to frees him.
But Putin is used to pushing back, Trenin said.
“He never does what others are trying to get from him under pressure – in this case, free Navalny,” he said.
The Biden administration will have to come up with more than statements of condemnation, Galeotti said, or “the Kremlin will rightly view this as a mark of helplessness rather than interest.”
While the Biden administration is likely to invoke new sanctions against Russia, they will not be enough, he said.
“The lesson of the last six years is that the sanctions do not by and large change the government that is prepared to outlast them,” he said.
Russia has been sanctioned by the United States on numerous occasions, not least because of allegations that it meddled in the 2016 American elections and because of its annexation of Crimea, with limited success in curbing the Moscow ambitions.
“I think there is political will within the Biden administration, but I’m not sure there is a lot of political imagination,” Galeotti said, adding that Biden will have to look for new ways to pressure and surprise the Kremlin.
“The Kremlin is always the most unhappy when it hasn’t been able to predict the outcome,” he said. “So it’s going to be about trying new ways, because the old ways don’t work. “
The Associated Press contributed to this report.