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Pentagon head speaks with Russian counterpart for first time in a year

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Russia’s defense minister — the first such conversation in 15 months.

Pentagon Press Secretary Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder announced the call in a briefing Tuesday, saying Austin initiated the discussion.

“The secretary emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine,” Ryder said.

Russia has blamed the U.S. for an attack on Crimea — a Ukrainian peninsula Moscow seized in 2014 — in which Ukraine used ATACMS missiles supplied by America. Still considered Ukrainian territory under international law, Crimea is an exception to a U.S. policy that bans Ukraine from shooting long-range weapons into Russia.

This week the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador Lynne Tracy for a scolding over the attack, which killed at least four and left more than 150 injured.

“Retaliatory measures are certain to follow,” the ministry said in a post on Telegram.

The last time Austin spoke with Russia’s defense minister — then Sergei Shoigu — was March 15, 2023. According to a Pentagon readout, the two discussed “unprofessional, dangerous, and reckless behavior by the Russian air force in international airspace over the Black Sea.”

A day before, a Russian jet had crashed into an American surveillance drone, forcing it down over international waters.

Andrei Belousov, the new defense minister, was appointed this May in a major shakeup within the Kremlin. Belousov is an economist by training, and his ascendance in part reflects Russia’s ability to manage its defense industry two years into the full-scale war in Ukraine.

This is the first time Belousov and Austin have spoken. The U.S. treats any conversations with Russia as extremely sensitive, and Ryder wouldn’t answer questions about how long the call lasted, why it occurred and the state of U.S.-Russia communication.

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

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