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Biden – Putin: One Phone Call, Two Readouts. What’s Different?

RUSSIA -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow, March 10, 2011.
RUSSIA -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow, March 10, 2011.
The Kremlin

The Kremlin

Russian Presidential Administration

“They discussed vital bilateral and international issues as well as opportunities to cooperate in countering such serious problems as the coronavirus pandemic, and in other areas, including trade and the economy.”


U.S. President Joe Biden spoke on the phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the White House announced on January 26. The Kremlin confirmed the phone call took place, but said Putin initiated it.

It’s normal for each side to issue “readouts” – a summary – of calls between leaders. But the White House and Kremlin readouts for this call are a study in contrast, and the Kremlin’s readout omits some particularly controversial issues.

As such, it’s misleading.

There is no mention of Biden’s stern warning to Putin following the suspected Russian computer hacking attack on the U.S. government and continued interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election.

The White House readout stated: “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 Kremlin’s bland interpretation refers to Russia as a global power with a “special” status in the world:

“Vladimir Putin congratulated Joseph Biden on the start of his term as U.S. President. He noted that normalization of relations between Russia and the U.S. would meet the interests of both countries and, considering their special responsibility for maintaining global security and stability, of the entire international community,” the Kremlin said.

Here are topics the White House said were covered in the call, but which the Kremlin’s summary neglects:

  • The SolarWind cyberattack on the U.S. government and private networks, which U.S. intelligence attributed to Russian state actors.
  • Allegations that Russia offered to pay bounties to the Taliban in Afghanistan for killing U.S. troops.
  • Russian meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
  • The poisoning of opposition figure Alexey Navalny with military grade nerve agent and Russian state security’s alleged participation in that attack.

For those unaware of Russia’s disinformation strategies, the difference may seem insignificant. But the Kremlin has categorically denied responsibility in the matters listed, despite strong evidence to the contrary.

The SolarWind cyberattack is just one in a long history of Russian hacks targeting governments, sports bodies and private firms.

Media reports alleging that Russia offered bounties for killing American troops have cited intelligence sources familiar with the investigation. However, neither the Pentagon nor the U.S. intelligence community has confirmed those reports.

Last September, NBC, citing three unidentified U.S. intelligence sources, reported that the allegations Russia offered bounties for killing American troops in Afghanistan may have been based on interviews of detained Taliban members, as well as U.S. National Security Agency intelligence collected by penetrating the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency.

There remain some doubters, to be sure. Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of the U.S. Central Command, subsequently told NBC that the charges of bounties have “not been proved to a level of certainty that satisfies” him.

The scope of Russian 2020 election interference is still being investigated. Yet, public reports and analysis of Russia’s state-owned media suggest the strategy was to undermine trust in the American election system.

Regarding Navalny, three independent specialized laboratories in Europe tested samples and found that he was poisoned with a version of Novichok, a nerve agent invented by the Soviet Union. An investigation by the UK-based investigative website Bellingcat concluded – with the help of Navalny, who survived – that Russia’s state security service, FSB was involved in the poisoning.

The Kremlin’s readout did mention the sensitive issue of Ukraine but misrepresented what was discussed. The White House readout stated: “President Biden reaffirmed the United States’ firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

The Kremlin’s readout said: “[T]he presidents reviewed the domestic settlement in Ukraine.” The use of the formulation “domestic settlement” is yet another example of the Kremlin’s disinformation spin. In the spring of 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, then part of Ukraine, by force, after which it staged a war in eastern Ukraine. Since that time, the Kremlin has denied involvement in the ongoing conflict. and other fact checkers have debunked those denials.

The latest evidence of the Russian government’s involvement in the conflict in Ukraine came on January 15 from Igor Girkin/Strelkov, the former commander of what Russia called the “rebel troops” in eastern Ukraine.

Girkin told the Russian radical nationalist Ivan Mironov in an interview that, while in Ukraine, he was under the direct command of Putin’s administration. He also said that Russian military forces were deployed in eastern Ukraine in 2014 disguised as volunteer mercenary troops, and that they were ordered to engage in active combat against the Ukrainian army.