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Top U.S., Russian Military Leaders Meet to Improve Mutual Communication

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The top U.S. military officer met in Switzerland with his Russian counterpart for talks aimed at increasing communication between their nations to reduce risks in conflict areas.

Today's meeting was the first time Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Russian Army Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the General Staff, have met face to face. The two military leaders have spoken by phone since Milley took office in October to avoid conflicts in military operations and risks of miscalculations.

U.S. and Russian generals stand in front of their respective nations’ flags and shake hands.
Milley Meeting
Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, left, meets with Chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov in Bern, Switzerland, Dec. 18, 2019.
Photo By: Army Sgt. 1st Class Chuck Burden, DOD
VIRIN: 191218-D-HD608-0004

''The two military leaders discussed Syria, strategic stability and a variety of operational and strategic issues to enhance deconfliction and improve understanding to reduce risk,'' Joint Staff spokesperson Air Force Col. DeDe S. Halfhill said in a written statement issued after the meeting.

The meeting is the latest in a series that began in February 2017 in Baku, Azerbaijan, between then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford and Gerasimov. Before that, U.S. and Russian military leaders had not met since early 2014 -- before Russia illegally annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine. Other meetings have occurred in Turkey, Finland and Austria. This is the first such meeting in Switzerland.

The need for communication among nations in conflict areas is especially keen in Syria. In 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that strayed into Turkish airspace from Syria. The battlespace in Syria is jumbled, with Turkey operating independently, Russian troops working with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, and U.S. forces operating through indigenous forces against a resurgence of ISIS. Because the chances of a miscalculation in Syria are high, the U.S.-Russia meetings aim to reduce the risk.

The military leaders have more to discuss. On Dec. 16, U.S. Coast Guard officials protested that a Russian spy ship was operating ''in an unsafe manner'' off the coast of South Carolina. Also, the U.S. destroyer USS Ross was tailed by a Russian ship after it entered the Black Sea. There have been incidents of Russian aircraft buzzing ships and crowding U.S. planes. 

The U.S. National Defense Strategy sees Russia as trying to reshape the international order. Milley addressed this during his confirmation hearing in July. ''We are living in a period of great power competition within a very complex and dynamic security environment,'' he said. ''My parents' … generation … fought to establish an international order that has prevented great power war for over seven decades, and it's currently under the most stress since the end of the Cold War. 

''From East Asia to the Middle East to Eastern Europe, authoritarian actors are testing the limits of the international system and seeking regional dominance while challenging international norms and undermining U.S. interest,'' he continued. ''Our goal should be to sustain great power peace that has existed since World War II and deal firmly with all of those who might challenge us.''

The meeting in Bern, Switzerland, is not an effort to return the U.S.-Russia relationship to normal, U.S. officials stressed, noting that Russian actions in Ukraine, Georgia, Syria and Libya have brought condemnation to Russia and that Russian efforts to divide NATO and its actions to undermine democratic elections are worrisome.

U.S. officials stressed that the United States does not coordinate actions with Russia. Rather, they explained, the meeting is an effort to ensure that communications remain open. Officials pointed out that even during the height of the Cold War, U. S. officials communicated with Soviet Union leaders.

The military leaders did not discuss political or policy issues, officials said, adding that the meeting is limited to the military sphere between two military professionals and that the discussions between Milley and Gerasimov are confidential.

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