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Were We On The Same Call? Why The Readouts of Biden's Talk With Putin Differed -- A Lot

Then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting in Moscow in 2011.
Then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting in Moscow in 2011.

White House and Kremlin statements about phone calls between the U.S. and Russian leaders often differ substantially, and the readouts that followed President Joe Biden's first conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin were far from an exception.

Here's a look at how the U.S. and Russian statements about the January 26 call differed -- and why.

Glory Days

One issue that the Kremlin and White House both mentioned high up in their readouts was the intention of the two countries to extend New START, the 2010 pact limiting the long-range nuclear arsenals of the former Cold War rivals, by five years. And both pledged to work to get it done before the treaty expires on February 5.

Prominent attention to this issue may be natural, given the approaching deadline and the fact that it is one of the very few things Moscow and Washington seem to agree upon at this point.

But highlighting it is also a no-brainer for the Kremlin, because Russia's nuclear weapons are by far the most prominent reminder of Moscow's Cold War-era superpower status and remain the strongest argument that the United States and other global powers must continue to reckon with Russia.

Before getting to New START, the Kremlin began its readout with wording that appeared aimed to depict the United States and Russia as equals sharing a place at the top.

With phrasing it has employed countless times, the Kremlin said Putin told Biden that "the normalization of relations between Russia and the United States would be in the interests of both countries and -- considering their special responsibility for supporting security and stability in the world -- of the entire international community."

The White House steered clear of such wording, seeming careful to separate the issue of New START -- as well as plans to "explore" discussions on broader arms-control and security issues -- from the context of bilateral relations as a whole and from any specific aspects of those ties.

Sending Signals

The apparent message: The extension of New START does not mean there's a sea change in our outlook on Russia, which is colored by concerns about Moscow's conduct and intentions in an array of areas, from human rights and freedoms at home to various forms of interference abroad.

Biden laid out some of those concerns, according to the White House. For one thing, it said, he "reaffirmed the United States' firm support for Ukraine's sovereignty" -- an allusion to U.S. opposition to Russia's forceful takeover of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and concern about the situation in eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed militants hold parts of two provinces and their nearly seven-year war against Kyiv's forces has killed more than 13,000 people.

The Kremlin readout also said that Biden and Putin discussed Ukraine, but its wording was vastly different. While the White House devoted a separate sentence to Ukraine, and mentioned it before turning to other concerns, Putin's office lumped it together with other matters in a two-word reference to what it called "internal Ukrainian" settlement efforts.

Such wording is frequently used by the Kremlin, and its purpose seems clear: to suggest, despite voluminous and undeniable evidence to the contrary, that Russia has little or nothing to do with the separatists and that the war in the Donbas is a domestic Ukrainian issue. To portray Moscow, in other words, as an arbiter in the conflict and not a party to it.

It is not unusual for public statements from U.S. and Russian officials about the same meeting, conversation, or negotiation to differ in the way they describe it. A pointed U.S. statement about a specific human rights issue, for example, might be rendered by a Russian official as a discussion on "the theme of human rights."

What To Leave In, What To Leave Out

This time, though, the White House mentioned four issues that the Kremlin kept out of its statement altogether: A recent large-scale hacking of U.S. government agencies, which the U.S. government has said Russia was probably behind; reports that Russian intelligence offered financial rewards for Afghan militants to kill U.S. troops; alleged Russian interference in the 2020 election that Biden won; and the poisoning of Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny.

Listing those as "other matters of concern" after the mention of U.S. support for Ukrainian sovereignty, the statement said 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."

Again, this seems to signal that the United States -- while pursuing agreements it deems to serve its security interests, such as the New START extension -- will not sacrifice one interest in pursuit of another. To put it more succinctly: No grand bargains, please.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did acknowledge the day after the call that Putin and Biden had discussed Navalny, who was jailed shortly after returning to Russia on January 17 from Germany, where he had been treated after the August nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on Putin and the Federal Security Service.

Navalny is now in the global spotlight, his fate an unavoidable factor in U.S.-Russian relations: Three days after Biden's inauguration, Russian police cracked down hard as tens of thousands of Russians protested nationwide over his jailing, detaining more than 3,700 people and drawing condemnation from Washington and the West.

Russian officials, meanwhile, have baselessly asserted that Navalny is a Western agent and, without evidence, have accused the United States of fomenting the protests.

Still Seeking Summit

In skirting any mention of Navalny in its readout of the call, Putin's administration may simply have been seeking to suggest that the issue is not a major concern -- a reflexive move, perhaps, as analysts say the Russian state has only increased his potential power as an opponent by allegedly poisoning him and then putting him in jail.

The Kremlin statement also mentioned several specific matters that the White House readout did not. Two of them were agreements from which the United States withdrew under former President Donald Trump: the Open Skies Treaty and the 2015 deal between global powers and Iran, which curbed Tehran's controversial nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

That sounded like a reminder of the challenges that the Biden administration faces as a result of his predecessor's actions -- and a challenge to the administration to address them.

In addition, the Kremlin statement mentioned Moscow's calls for a summit of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, a body that gives Russia and its other four members -- the United States, Britain, France, and China -- a stronger voice than the rest in global affairs.

Putin first proposed the summit a year ago. But it never took shape, as the coronavirus took hold and Kremlin critics in the West worried that the forum would provide Moscow with an elevated platform Putin might use to try to blunt unity in response to Russia's actions beyond its borders.

The White House readout did not mention the idea.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.