Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Russian counterpart hold first call since invasion of Ukraine

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Friday for the first time since Russia initiated its invasion of Ukraine.

According to a readout from the Pentagon, during the conversation with Shoigu, Austin “urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication.”

The call is the first time the two officials have spoken since Feb. 18, before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

A readout from the Russian Ministry of Defense said the call was initiated by the U.S, and the two leaders discussed “topical international security issues, including the situation in Ukraine.”

A U.S. senior defense said the call lasted about an hour and confirmed that Austin had requested the call. Since mid-February, the Pentagon has consistently been reaching out for calls with Russian counterparts, but the Russians had previously shown no interest. It’s unclear now why Shoigu agreed to Friday’s call.

The official characterized the tone of the call as “professional,” and said that while having the call and keeping open lines of communication is important, the call itself did not resolve any specific issues or alter Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.

The call took place as the Pentagon assessed that the Russians are two weeks behind their own schedule of where they expected to be positioned in the south and east of Ukraine by now.

For the past two weeks, the Pentagon has described the Russian advances as steady and incremental, but still uneven, and the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, told the Senate this week that the situation has become a “bit of a stalemate.”

“I think I would characterize it as the Russians aren’t winning and the Ukrainians aren’t winning,” Berrier said.

The call between Austin and Shoigu also took place just before Ukraine was on the verge of receiving a huge infusion of cash from the U.S. The Senate is expected to pass $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine next week.

At the same time, Russia’s stated goal in the Ukraine war of halting the NATO alliance’s expansion is now being upended by Sweden and Finland, which are both seeking membership in the western defense alliance.

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