Exclusive: Trump's defense chief open to
first talks with Russian counterpart - sources
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[July 18, 2018]
By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense
Secretary Jim Mattis is open to the possibility of the first talks since
2015 between the defense chiefs of the United States and Russia, a move
that would deepen communication between Washington and Moscow, U.S.
The possibility of talks surfaced after Monday's controversial summit in
Helsinki between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President
Vladimir Putin, in which they sought an end to years of strained
relations. Trump was heavily criticized at home for not holding Putin
accountable in Helsinki for meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, an
allegation that Moscow denies.
Discussions between Mattis and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu
would be another step toward creating more regular top-level political
talks between the two nuclear powers, whose relations have deteriorated
in recent years to the worst point since the Cold War.
Two U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said
Mattis was open to the possibility of talks. They did not suggest he was
actively seeking discussions with Shoigu, either in person or by
The Pentagon declined comment. It said it had not received any
invitation from Moscow for talks, despite remarks last week by Shoigu
suggesting Mattis had rebuffed invitations, and no plans for any talks
have been made.
Mattis, an outspoken critic of Moscow who placed threats from Russia and
China at the center of last year's U.S. National Defense Strategy, has
not been publicly opposed to dialogue, however.
Last month, Mattis flew to China for talks with senior officials in
Beijing, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. He was firm with
Chinese officials over U.S. concerns about Chinese military activities,
including in the disputed South China Sea, even as he sought to build
ties, officials said.
Since 2015, the highest-level military discussions have been between the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford,
and Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov.
Dunford, who is subordinate to the defense secretary, and Gerasimov
spoke by phone on June 14 and in person in Helsinki on June 8 for their
third face-to-face meeting.
But like Gerasimov, Shoigu, a long-time Putin loyalist, also enjoys a
high profile in Russia. Shoigu has even been considered a possible
presidential stand-in if Putin, who won a fourth term in an election in
March, had to step down suddenly and was unable to serve out a full
[to top of second column]
U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis addresses a press conference
at the Ministry of Defence in Olso, Norway, July 14, 2018. Jim
Watson/Pool via REUTERS
The Russian military is reaping political dividends from what the
Kremlin saw as its big successes in Crimea, annexed from Ukraine in
2014, and Syria, where Russian forces helped turn the tide of a civil
war in Moscow ally President Bashar al-Assad's favor in 2015.
Shoigu is a critic of the United States and was quoted last week telling
an Italian newspaper that Russia would always work to counter what he
described as America's "neocolonialism strategy." Shoigu said the
strategy was aimed at destabilizing countries like Iraq and Libya for
U.S. financial gain.
Former U.S. officials said former President Barack Obama's last two
defense secretaries - Chuck Hagel and Ash Carter - came to the
conclusion after attempts to hold meaningful dialogue with Shoigu that
the discussions were not worth their time.
Derek Chollet, a former senior Pentagon official who was present during
talks with Shoigu under the Obama administration, doubted that Mattis
would find any discussions very productive.
"Perhaps Mattis feels as though he has to test the proposition for
himself, but I don't hold out much hope that he's going to get anywhere.
If anything, he could expose himself as out of step with his boss,"
Chollet said, referring to Trump.
"If he sends a tough message to the Russians, and they say: 'that's very
interesting but your boss doesn't agree,' - then that's going to be an
On his trip to Europe last week for a NATO summit, a visit to staunch
U.S. ally Britain and then Helsinki, Trump said not a single disparaging
word in public about Russia on any of the issues vexing relations, but
he did chide NATO members for not spending enough on shared defense.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)
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