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One of the first challenges Joe Biden will face as president is how to deal with Vladimir Putin, leader of the country that Biden has labelled the biggest threat to the United States. In contrast to the impetuous and inconsistent Donald Trump, Putin is generally seen as a resolute leader, who unflaggingly pursues his country’s foreign policy goals, however malign. But the cases of three Americans who are currently detained in Russia belie this image of Putin, portraying instead a leader who is dysfunctionally beholden to the interests of his security services and the corrupt clans who form his power base.

The case of American investor Michael Calvey, which should be decided by a Moscow court within the next few weeks, offers a particularly striking example of how Putin has allowed a corrupted legal and financial system to undermine Russia’s broader interests. Calvey, arrested along with five others in February…

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