US and Russian defense chiefs speak for first time since invasion

WASHINGTON — Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu spoke to US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday after months of refusing direct contact with his US counterpart. But officials said the call did not appear to signal a change in Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

A senior Department of Defense official said Friday that while Austin believes the hour-long conversation was important in the effort to keep the lines of communication open, it did not resolve any “acute issues” or result in of change in what the Russians do or are doing. saying as the war enters week 12.

The call – made by Austin – marked the highest-level American contact with a Russian official since the war began in late February. In recent months, Pentagon officials have repeatedly said Russian leaders have refused to respond to calls from Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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

In a statement, the Pentagon said Austin “has called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and underscored the importance of maintaining the lines of communication.”

Several officials described the call as a positive step, but said there was no clear reason why the Russians decided to continue the conversation on Friday. The defense official said the United States hoped this would serve as a springboard for future conversation and it appeared Austin’s request for future communication had been granted. The manager described the content of the call as “professional” but did not provide any other details about its content.

Direct communications between US and Russian defense and military chiefs are considered crucial in order to avoid any misunderstandings or an unwarranted escalation of hostilities. The United States and Russia have also established a so-called deconfliction line that can be used by the military in the event of an emergency or perceived threat to NATO allies around Ukraine. It hasn’t been used, but US officials say the Russians answered the phone during testing to make sure it worked.

The United States and other Western officials have described Russia’s fight in Ukraine, particularly the effort to wrest greater control over the eastern Donbass region, as more than two weeks behind schedule and failing to make steady progress.

Russian forces on Friday suffered heavy casualties in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross a river to the east, which Ukrainian, British and American officials said was a another sign of Moscow’s struggle to save a vanished war. sideways.

Ukraine’s Airborne Command released photos and video of what it said was a damaged Russian pontoon bridge over the Siversky Donets River and several destroyed or damaged Russian military vehicles nearby. The command said its troops “drowned the Russian occupiers”.

The battle for Donbass, which has intensified since the failed Russian attempt to take kyiv, has become a daily occurrence, as towns and villages change hands.

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