WASHINGTON, Nov 28 (Reuters) – A communication line set up between the United States and Russia’s militaries at the start of Moscow’s war against Ukraine has only been used once so far, a U.S. official told Reuters.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the United States had initiated a call to the “deconfliction” line to communicate its concerns about Russian military operations near critical infrastructure in Ukraine.
Reuters was the first to report on the use of the deconfliction line beyond regular testing.
Few details are known about the specific incident that led to the call on the line that connects U.S. Army European Command and Russia’s National Defense Command Center.
The official declined to elaborate but said it was not used when an errant missile landed in NATO member Poland on Nov. 15, killing two people. The explosion was likely caused by a Ukrainian air defense missile, but Russia was ultimately responsible because it started the war in late February, NATO said.
Although the U.S. official declined to specify which Russian activity caused the U.S. concern, there have been publicly acknowledged incidents involving Russian fighting around critical Ukrainian infrastructure.
These include Russian operations around Ukraine’s Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, which is under Russian control.
Ukraine has also raised concerns that Russia could blow up the Nova Kakhovka dam, which holds back a huge reservoir in southern Ukraine. A rupture of the dam wall would send a wall of water flooding villages below, including the strategic regional capital of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces retook on November 11.
Communications between the US and Russia have been in the spotlight since the start of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, given the grave risk that a misjudgment by either side could trigger direct conflict between the nuclear-armed nations.
MULTIPLE WAYS TO COMMUNICATE
The deconfliction line is just one of several ways the US and Russian militaries still have to communicate.
Other military channels include rare high-level talks between US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Senior American and Russian generals, US Army General Mark Milley and Russian General Valery Gerasimov, have also spoken twice since the start of the war, his office said.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director Bill Burns have also had contact with Russian officials.
Still, US-Russian relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War, and the US State Department said on Monday that Moscow had postponed talks in Cairo aimed at resuming nuclear weapons inspections. The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed that the talks had been postponed. Neither side gave a reason.
Asked for comment on the deconfliction line, the Pentagon said only that it had maintained several channels to “discuss critical security issues with the Russians during contingencies or emergencies to prevent miscalculations, military incidents and escalation.”
“We are encouraged by the recent talks by senior Defense Department officials with Russian counterparts and believe that continued dialogue is critical,” a Defense Department spokesman said.
Neither the Russian embassy in Washington nor the defense ministry in Moscow responded to requests for comment.
NOT A COMPLAINT LINE
When it was announced in March, the Pentagon said the deconfliction line was created to avoid unintended collisions in NATO airspace or on the ground.
“This is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all complaint line where we can just pick up the phone and register concerns about what Russia is doing in Ukraine,” a senior U.S. defense official said at the time.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union maintained such hotlines at various levels.
Alexander Vershbow, a former US ambassador to Moscow and former senior Pentagon and NATO official, said the latest deconfliction line was designed to focus on day-to-day operations – as opposed to more strategic talks between senior officials such as Milli and Gerasimov.
Vershbow drew a comparison to the much more active deconfliction line for Syria, where US and Russian military forces sometimes operate in the same airspace or terrain.
“We’ve seen that in Syria, where having a direct operational channel can at least clarify intentions during a fast-moving situation where Washington might be sleeping,” Vershbow told Reuters.
The deconfliction line is tested twice a day with conversations in Russian, the US official told Reuters. A Russian speaker from the US European Command initiated those calls from Wiesbaden, Germany, the official said.
Wiesbaden is also the location of the Pentagon’s new Security Assistance Group-Ukraine, or SAG-U, which remotely supports the defense of the government in Kyiv against Russian troops.
U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said earlier that early in the conflict, planners thought the deconfliction line could be useful if the United States needed to evacuate Americans from Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine.
When the war began, the United States believed that Russia could quickly seize Ukrainian territory, trapping American citizens before they had a chance to leave.
One official suggested it could also be used if a Russian fighter jet chased a Ukrainian plane into Polish airspace or if a Russian missile crossed NATO airspace.
Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idris Ali; Editing by Don Durfee and Grant McCool
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