When Gen. Mark Milley emerged from six hours of tense talks with his Russian counterpart in Helsinki last September, the Joint Chiefs chair looked almost buoyant. Or at least as chipper as the gruff soldier of more than 40 years ever gets in public. “When military leaders of great powers communicate, the world is a safer place,” Milley said, striking an optimistic tone.
Now, just five months later, with Russian military forces pummeling Ukraine from the air, land and sea, Milley’s paean to a common understanding with Moscow is virtually dead.
But his relationship with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian Armed Forces, is at the center of a highly sensitive behind-the-scenes effort to prevent the biggest war in Europe in generations from spinning into a wider conflict. It’s a situation that became more urgent on Sunday, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his nuclear forces on high alert after a series of what he called “aggressive statements” by NATO powers.
Since their meeting in Finland, the two men have spoken multiple times, including during the initial Russian buildup in November and again earlier this month.
Milley and Gerasimov have not spoken since the latest hostilities, two DoD officials told POLITICO. But Pentagon officials say they hope their line of communication — which has been more frequent than that of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu — can help open up more regular links with Russian forces as the conflict ratchets up.
“Now that Ukrainian airspace is in dispute and being contested and Ukrainian airspace runs right up alongside NATO airspace, we have conveyed to the Russians that we believe a conduit at the operational level is needed … so we can avoid miscalculation,” a senior Pentagon official told POLITICO. “And we have not received any response from them in terms of whether they agree, whether they are willing to set something up.”