The first meeting between the top military officers in the United States and Russia since 2014 resulted in an agreement on enhancing communication to avoid “unintended incidents," the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Gen. Valery Gerasimov met Thursday in Azerbaijan, the first meeting between the nations' top military officers since military cooperation was suspended three years ago amid Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“The U.S. and Russian militaries have undertaken efforts to improve operational safety of military activities in order to decrease the prospects for crisis and avoid the risk of unintended incidents,” the office said in a statement, in an apparent reference to existing de-escalation efforts in Syria. “The leaders further agreed to enhance communications on such stabilizing measures.”
The meeting has been in the works for months but happens at a time of turmoil in the United States over President Trump aides’ alleged communication with Russian intelligence officials.
Trump has come under increasing pressure in recent days over his stated desire to improve relations with Russia after Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser Monday night. The resignation came after it was revealed that Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador to the United States about sanctions and misled top White House officials about the phone conversations.
The New York Times also reported Tuesday night that Trump campaign aides were in “constant” contact with Russia officials during the presidential campaign.
The U.S. statement on Thursday’s meeting did not elaborate on where “unintended incidents” might arise, but there are several areas where Russia and the United States have had encounters recently.
Both militaries operate in Syria, where the United States is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Russia is backing the Syrian regime. The U.S. and Russian militaries already regularly communicate about air operations there in an effort to avoid midair accidents between pilots.
But the Pentagon has also accused Russian jets and ships of “unsafe and unprofessional” behavior in the Black, Baltic and Mediterranean seas several times in the last year.
Most recently, last week, Russian jets repeatedly buzzed a U.S. guided missile destroyer in the Black Sea, U.S. European Command said Tuesday.
Thursday's conversation also included an exchange of "views on the state of U.S.-Russian military relations and of the international security situation in Europe, the Middle East, and other key regions," the statement said.
Russia’s statement about Dunford and Gerasimov’s meeting also said the discussion included talk of work “aimed to raise the safety level of military activities, decrease tensions and risks of incidents.”
“General of the Army Valery Gerasimov and General Joseph Dunford exchanged their views on condition of the Russia-America relationship, assessments of situations in the field of international security in Europe, Middle East, North Africa and other key regions of the world,” the Russian Defense Ministry statement added.
Despite Thursday’s talks, Defense Secretary James Mattis has ruled out military cooperation with Russia.
“We do not or are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level,” Mattis said Thursday morning in Brussels. “But our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground or a way forward where Russia, living up to its commitments, will return to a partnership of sorts here with NATO.”