Repeated attempts by the United States’ top defense and military leaders to speak with their Russian counterparts have been rejected by Moscow for the last month, leaving the world’s two largest nuclear powers in the dark about explanations for military movements and raising fears of a major miscalculation or battlefield accident.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have tried to set up phone calls with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov but the Russians “have so far declined to engage,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby in a statement Wednesday.
The attempted calls by Austin and Milley, which have not previously been reported, come as Russia conducts operations near the borders of NATO members Poland and Romania while the United States and its European allies conduct air-policing operations over the Baltic Sea and pour weapons and equipment into Ukraine by ground transport.
Moscow and Washington maintain a deconfliction channel but current and former officials say contact from higher-ranking military leaders is needed to avoid unnecessary escalation or confusion.
“There is a high risk of escalation without the firebreak of direct contact between the most senior officials,” said James Stavridis, who served as the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO from 2009 to 2013. “Very young people are flying in jets, operating warships, and conducting combat operations in the Ukrainian war. They are not seasoned diplomats, and their actions in the heat of operations can be misunderstood.”