A State Department spokesperson on Saturday issued a harsh condemnation of the Russian government for its detention of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets to protest Navalny’s detainment – the latest sign the Biden administration intends to sharply diverge from the Trump administration’s tone on Russia.
In a statement, spokesperson Ned Price noted the protests follow “years of tightening restrictions on and repressive actions against civil society, independent media, and the political opposition.”
“We call on Russian authorities to release all those detained for exercising their universal rights and for the immediate and unconditional release of Aleksey Navalny,” Price continued, while also urging Russia to “fully cooperate” with a probe into Navalny’s poisoning last year and “credibly explain the use of a chemical weapon on its soil.”
In perhaps the most revealing part of the statement, Cline concluded that the U.S. will “stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and partners in defense of human rights – whether in Russia or wherever they come under threat.”
This stands in contrast to a statement put out by now-former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week in response to Navalny’s detainment which called for his unconditional release but lacked the biting tone and deep cuts of Saturday’s statement.
Trump’s attitude towards Russia was a source of criticism throughout his presidency – from publicly soliciting Russia to hack his opponent’s emails during the 2016 campaign to his deference to Putin at the Helsinki conference in 2018 to his silence on the alleged bounties last year.
“The Kremlin no doubt thinks that it can act with impunity. Donald Trump has refused to confront Putin, calling him a ‘terrific person,’” Biden noted in a statement on Navalny’s poisoning in September. “He has yet to condemn the attack on Mr. Navalny. His silence is complicity. Americans are less safe with Donald Trump in the White House.”
Top Kremlin officials had already, prior to Biden’s inauguration, expressed pessimism about their ability to work with the new administration. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the Russian government anticipates “nothing positive” from Biden, while deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said “we are not expecting anything good,” claiming Biden and his team have “made their careers on Russophobia.”
Even as Biden condemns Russia, his administration also seeks to ensure their animosity doesn’t morph into something more deadly. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the U.S. plans to seek a 5-year extension to New START, a key arms reduction treaty, calling it “an anchor of strategic stability between our two countries.”