US, Russian defense chiefs speak for first time in five months
WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Russia Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu Friday for the first time since May as the war in Ukraine approaches its eight-month anniversary, according to the Pentagon.
Austin initiated the call with his Russian counterpart, during which the secretary “emphasized was the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war,” Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the two discussed “international security problems, notably the situation in Ukraine,” in a readout posted on Telegram Friday morning.
It was only the second time Austin and Shoigu have spoken since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The previous call happened May 13, which was the first time the defense heads spoke since six days before the invasion began.
Singh demurred when asked why Austin chose Friday to make the call – five months after his last. She also declined to say how long the call lasted.
“Today just provided a good opportunity, the right opportunity for this call to happen,” she said. “Amidst an ongoing war, this was the day that provides the best opportunity to connect.”
Also on Friday, Austin spoke with Ukraine Defense Minister Olekseii Reznikov, with whom he has far more regular talks, Singh said.
“We have frequent communication not just at the Secretary’s level, [but] at other levels within this building and other agencies that have communication with the Ukrainians,” she said.
Reznikov said he discussed “enhancement of Ukraine air defense capabilities and [the] security situation” in a Twitter post after the call.
“[The US] condemns Russia strikes on civilian and energy infrastructure,” Reznikov wrote. “@SecDef assured that no matter who negotiates with whom, US support of Ukraine sovereignty and territorial integrity remains unwavering.”
Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said Austin conducted the call to “reiterate the unwavering US commitment to supporting Ukraine’s ability to counter Russia’s aggression.”
“Secretary Austin also underscored the international community’s continued support in building Ukraine’s enduring strength and safeguarding Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in the future, as demonstrated by the security assistance commitments made by allies and partners at the most recent Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting,” Ryder said in a readout of the conversation.
The spokesman was referencing the Oct. 12 meeting of the US-led initiative that gathers defense officials from more than 50 nations each month to discuss ways to support Ukraine. During its latest meeting in Brussels, partners focused on protecting Ukraine’s airspace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said at the time.
The Ukrainian leader said he discussed “enhancement of Ukraine air defense capabilities and [the] security situation” in a Twitter post after the call.
“[The US] condemns Russia strikes on civilian and energy infrastructure,” Reznikov said. “[Austin] assured that no matter who negotiates with whom, US support of Ukraine sovereignty and territorial integrity remains unwavering.”
“We focused on air defense, on cannon artillery, rocket artillery, maneuver tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers,” he added. “These systems and associated ammunition are critical for Ukraine to continue the fight. They are employing these weapons extremely well.”
The new focus on air defense comes as Iranian troops have entered Ukraine to help Russia use kamikaze drones Tehran sold to Moscow to target civilians and infrastructure, the White House said Thursday.
Russia purchased about 1,000 Shahed-136 drones from Iran at the end of August, “dozens” of which have been deployed across Ukraine since last month, US officials have said.
“Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons … that are killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.
Kirby said Iranian troops are primarily helping their Russian counterparts with training and maintenance on the systems, nicknamed “kamikaze drones” for their ability to smash into a target to deploy its attached warhead.
“These are systems that the Russian Armed Forces are not familiar using, and these are organically manufactured Iranian [drones],” he said. “The Russians just don’t have anything in their inventory, so it follows that they would need a little training on how to pilot these things.”
Singh on Friday said she had no updates regarding Iran’s efforts in Ukraine, though she noted that the Ukrainians continue fighting fiercely to regain territory taken earlier by Russia.
“On the ground, we are seeing the Ukrainians make progress in their counteroffensive in the north and the south, but we’re also seeing the Russians pushing hard,” Singh said. “We’re seeing heavy fighting in Bahkmut, but the Ukrainians are continuing with their counter offensive.”