Top U.S. general to meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday
By MSN News February 16, 2017
Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with the top Russian military officer this week, in the first encounter between the two countries’ leading generals since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Dunford will hold talks with Valeriy Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, in Baku, Azerbaijian, on Thursday, Dunford’s office said in a statement. There has only been a handful of phone calls between Pentagon leaders and their Russian counterparts since the Ukraine crisis erupted, and no face-to-face meetings, defense officials said.
The timing of the unusual meeting is striking, just days after President Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn was ousted over his communications with a Russian diplomat prior to Trump’s inauguration, the latest fallout from an ongoing saga over purported Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. It also comes as lawmakers increase their scrutiny of Trump advisers’ contacts with Russian officials during the campaign and amplify their criticism of what they call Russian hostility against the United States.
In recent days, Russian jets have buzzed an American destroyer in the Black Sea, and Moscow has been reported to have deployed a new land-based cruise missile in violation of a longstanding arms treaty. This week, a Russian ship was also spotted off the coast of Connecticut, a periodic deployment in international waters that nonetheless added to concerns about the Kremlin’s military posture.
It’s not yet clear whether the talks in Baku signal the beginning of a rapprochement with Russia in keeping with Trump’s friendlier outlook toward Moscow, or whether they foreshadow an expansion of the tightly constrained interactions the U.S. military has had with Moscow since 2014.
Under the Obama administration, the United States harshly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Obama White House also enhanced the U.S. military presence in Eastern Europe in response to perceived Russian threats.
Current and former officials said that Dunford had been hoping for months to arrange the meeting with Gerasimov, who was targeted by European Union sanctions in 2014, but arrangements were bogged down over scheduling and the proper location for the talks.
Some former officials questioned the need for such an encounter at a moment when the Trump administration has not yet articulated its Russia policy and when possible ties with Moscow have plunged the new administration into crisis.
“Given the domestic context about Russian cooperation, the timing seems fraught,” said one former senior defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely.
Charles Kupchan, who was a senior official on Russia and Europe in the Obama White House, called the optics surrounding the meeting “awkward.”
“That having been said, I do see this as a completely separate channel and a conversation that has its initial roots back in the Obama administration,” he said. “Whatever is going on inside the Trump [administration] vis-a-vis a reset with Russia, there is a self-standing rationale for having this meeting, and that is that the situation in Syria is evolving.”
Dunford’s office said the meeting would address “the importance of consistent and clear military-to-military communication to prevent miscalculation and potential crises.”
In practice, it will probably focus on Syria, where the United States continues to battle Islamic State militants and where Russia has been conducting bombing raids for more than a year against opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Dunford, who has cultivated close ties with the Turkish chief of defense, will probably play a key role in navigating a U.S. response to improved Turkish and Russian ties in Syria, which has the potential to bring U.S. and Russian aircraft into closer proximity.
In part because of current congressional requirements, U.S. defense officials have limited their interactions with the Russian military mainly to a series of “deconfliction” talks about air operations in Syria designed to ensure that Russian and American jets don’t come into conflict as they both conduct operations in Syrian airspace.
While there have been deep reservations at the Pentagon about proposals to expand military cooperation with Russia, former defense secretary Ashton B. Carter, who stepped down last month, supported Dunford’s effort to open a new line of communication with the Russian military, the former official said. As the Pentagon draws up revised plans to battle the Islamic State, including a planned assault on its Syrian capital, Raqqa, it’s not yet clear where Jim Mattis, Trump’s new defense secretary, will come down on the potential for closer ties with Russia.
“It’s natural that as a new administration has come into office . . . that this kind of discussion would unfolded between the United States and Russia,” said Dakota Wood, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation.
That said, Wood added, “you just can’t cede to a competitor state all of these various activities and not stand up in some way.”
Source: MSN NEWS / The Washington Post
Photo: © Alex Brandon/AP Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford arrives at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)