US and Russian defense chiefs speak for first time since invasion

US and Russian defense chiefs speak for first time since invasion

After months of rebuffing US requests, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Friday

WASHINGTON – Russian Defense Secretary Sergei Shoigu spoke with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Friday after months of declining direct contact with his American counterpart. But officials said the call appeared to signal no change in Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

A senior Defense Department official said Friday that Austin believes that while the hour-long call was important to keep lines of communication open, it did not resolve any “acute problems” or result in a change in course of action the Russians say if the War occurs in week 12.

The call, initiated by Austin, was the highest American contact with a Russian official since the war began in late February. In recent months, Pentagon officials have repeatedly said that the Russian leadership has refused to take calls from Austin and Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

This is Austin and Shoigu’s first conversation since February 18, a week before the war began. Another senior official said Friday that Milley is also likely to approach his counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of staff.

In a statement, the Pentagon said Austin “urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and stressed the importance of maintaining lines of communication.”

Several officials called the call a positive move but said there was no clear reason why the Russians decided to continue the call on Friday. The defense official said the US hopes it will serve as a springboard for future talks and that it appears Austin’s request for future communications has been received. The officer described the tone of the call as “professional” but gave no further details as to its content.

Direct communication between US and Russian defense and military leaders is seen as crucial to avoid misunderstandings or an unwarranted escalation of hostilities. The US and Russia have also established a so-called conflict resolution line that can be used by the militaries in the event of an emergency or perceived threat to NATO allies near Ukraine. It hasn’t been used, but US officials say the Russians picked up the phone during testing to make sure it worked.

US and other Western officials have described Russia’s struggle in Ukraine, particularly efforts to gain greater control of the eastern Donbass region, as more than two weeks behind schedule and as unstable progress.

On Friday, Russian forces suffered heavy casualties in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross a river to the east, in what Ukrainian, British and US officials said, another sign Moscow’s fight has ended save war wrong.

The Ukrainian Airborne Command released photos and videos of a damaged Russian pontoon bridge over the Siversky Donets River and several destroyed or damaged Russian military vehicles nearby. The commando said its troops “drowned the Russian occupiers.”

The battle for Donbass, which has been heating up since the failure of Russia’s attempt to take Kyiv, has become a daily grind as towns and villages change hands.

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