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U.S., Russian defense chiefs hold first talks in months

The dearth of conversation between Washington and Moscow has become a source of concern in the West, particularly as Putin suggests an openness to using nuclear weapons

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington on Sept. 29, 2021; Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on Feb. 23, 2021. (Alexi Druzhinin, Rod Lamkey/AFP/Getty Images)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday spoke with his Russian counterpart for the first time since May, as Ukrainian forces seek advances ahead of winter, and Russian drone and missile attacks have terrorized civilians.

Details of the call were closely guarded by both sides. The Pentagon said Austin initiated the call and “emphasized” to Russia’s defense chief, Sergei Shoigu, “the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war.” The Kremlin, in its summary of the leaders’ “telephone negotiations,” said only that they discussed “relevant aspects of international security, including the situation in Ukraine.”

As his troops retreat, Russian defense chief comes under pressure at home

The Pentagon relies on back-channel discussions with Russia and other adversaries as a means to avoid missteps or miscommunication that could trigger wider conflict. The United States has expanded its military footprint in Eastern Europe and in the Baltics in response to the Ukraine war, and the dearth of conversation between Washington and Moscow has become a source of concern — notably so as Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested again in recent weeks his willingness to employ nuclear weapons.

Setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine have led to increased nuclear threats by Russia, echoing Cold War events like the little-known 1983 nuclear crisis. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

The risk of an unintended misread has been elevated for months. American personnel in Poland are involved in the transfer of Western weapons and other military supplies to Ukraine, while U.S. and NATO jets continue to conduct operations over the Baltic Sea.

The military “deconfliction line” between the United States and Russia went cold after the invasion, with repeated U.S. calls to Moscow going unanswered, officials have said. The chill between military leaders has underscored a broader diplomatic shutdown between the two governments.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking at a news conference Friday, said the Biden administration had been “very clear that whenever we have something that’s important to communicate to Russia, we’ll do it.” He did not indicate what Austin communicated to Shoigu.

The last documented call between Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, occurred in July. Both attended a U.N. Security Council meeting last month, but Lavrov arrived after Blinken’s remarks and departed immediately following his own.

“I’ve had occasion to speak to Foreign Minister Lavrov when we have issues that are important to our security,” Blinken said, noting that Austin and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan have done the same. Those contacts, he said, “will continue.”

During Austin’s last call with Shoigu, on May 13, the defense secretary “urged an immediate cease fire in Ukraine,” the Pentagon said then. Friday’s readout included no mention of Austin making a similar appeal.

Speaking to reporters after the call, Defense Department spokeswoman Sabrina Singh characterized this most recent conversation as “a good opportunity, the right opportunity, to connect,” adding that “dialogue is good here.”

Such dialogue, though, was more frequent before the war began. In late February, with Russia’s invasion imminent, the pair held a tense call in which Austin pushed Shoigu to come clean about the Kremlin’s intent to attack. As The Washington Post reported previously, Austin told him, “I know what you’re doing.” U.S. officials have described their limited conversations since then as “professional.”

U.S. has viewed wreckage of kamikaze drones Russia used in Ukraine

Shoigu has faced growing political pressure at home over Russian forces’ recent retreats in Ukraine, with hard-liners openly attacking the military command for setbacks in areas the Kremlin has claimed to have annexed. The defense minister has appeared increasingly vulnerable after the succession of humiliating military failures, which last month forced Putin to order the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of reservists.

Austin’s outreach comes, too, as Russia, facing Western sanctions and other punitive economic measures, has turned to Iran for help stanching its battlefield losses. The White House this week affirmed reports that Tehran had dispatched a small number of personnel to assist Russian operators using Iranian-made drones to target civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. The United States has viewed wreckage of the unmanned aircraft, which could prove advantageous as Ukrainian forces seek better means to defeat them.

Ukraine is looking to solidify battlefield gains in the east and south before winter sets in, when both sides will likely slow operations. The offensive push marks a crucial test for Ukrainian forces and whether they can maintain pressure on Russian’s already beleaguered supply lines.

Robyn Dixon in Riga, Latvia, and Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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