US and Russian defense chiefs speak for the first time since the invasion

After rejecting US requests for months, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu spoke with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday.

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

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

The call, initiated by Austin, marked the highest-level US contact with a Russian official since the war began in late February. Over the past few months, Pentagon officials have repeatedly said that Russian leaders refused to take calls from Austin and Army General 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 is also expected to communicate with his counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, the Russian chief of staff.

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

Several officials described the call as a positive step, but said there was no clear reason why the Russians decided to go ahead with the talk on Friday. The defense official said the United States hopes it will serve as a springboard for further talks and that Austin’s request for further communications appears to have been received. The official characterized the tenor of the call as “professional” but did not provide further details about its content.

Direct communications between US and Russian military and defense leaders are seen as crucial to avoid misunderstandings or an unwarranted escalation of hostilities. The United States and Russia have also established a so-called de-escalation line that the military can use in the event of any emergency or perceived threat to NATO allies in Ukraine. It hasn’t been used, but US officials say the Russians answered the phone during tests to make sure it works.

The United States and other Western officials have described Russia’s struggle in Ukraine, in particular the effort to gain greater control over the eastern Donbas region, as more than two weeks behind schedule and without consistent progress.

On Friday, Russian forces suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross a river in the east, in what Ukrainian, British and American officials said was another sign of Moscow’s struggle. to save a war that ended. distorted.

Ukraine’s airborne command released photos and videos 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 the Donbas, which has intensified since Russia’s attempt to take kyiv failed, has become a daily routine as cities and towns change hands.

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