United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with Russian Defense Secretary Sergei Shoigu on Friday, for the first time since February.
In a phone call that last approximately one hour, the U.S. defense secretary called for a ceasefire between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
The call was facilitated by a “deconfliction” hotline that was established in the wake of the invasion in the hope of preventing escalation in the region. The hotline is available to European counterparts too but has been largely unused. In March, the Russian defense minister repeatedly declined calls from Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as Secretary Austin.
A brief readout of the call simply states that Austin called for an “immediate ceasefire.” However, the call has not yet resulted in any changes to Russia’s plans in Ukraine, nor does it appear likely that it will have any effect.
What Happens Next?
Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in the first place was driven largely by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure to receive assurances from Western countries that Ukraine would be allowed to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. Since then, Russia has demanded that Ukraine demilitarize and adapt its constitution to prevent future membership of a Western military alliance.
Peace negotiations between Ukraine and Russia also stalled after the two sides could not come to an agreement over these matters and more. While the United States plays a large role in establishing peace in the region, a combination of disagreements with Ukraine and the U.S. government’s previous comments about Russia may hurt the prospect of a ceasefire or peace agreement.
In April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin explicitly stated that the United States intends to hurt Russia’s military capabilities. Austin himself said that he hopes that Russia is left unable to recover from the conflict in Ukraine – a markedly different approach than many European leaders.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned this week against “humiliating” Russia at the end of the conflict in Ukraine in the way that Germany was humiliated in the wake of the first World War.
During a press conference in Poland, Austin insisted that Russia should be “weakened.”
“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said, adding that Russia should “not have the capability to very quickly reproduces” the weapons and equipment it lost in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is not known for his willingness to accept defeat.
U.S. experts on Russia claimed in 2016 that repeated hacking campaigns against the United States government and businesses were a response to embarrassment.
Fiona Hill, national intelligence officer for Russia during both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said that Putin was “giving [America] the finger” and that “hacks are meant to intimidate the hell out of us.”
Kremlin officials have also repeatedly threatened nuclear conflict in the event that Russia faces an “existential threat,” suggesting that Russia accepting defeat is not yet on the cards.
If Putin is this determined in Ukraine, is it possible for the Kremlin to negotiate peace with American officials who have explicitly called for Russia to be hurt to the point that it cannot recover?
Jack Buckby is a British author, counter-extremism researcher, and journalist based in New York. Reporting on the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., he works to analyze and understand left-wing and right-wing radicalization, and reports on Western governments’ approaches to the pressing issues of today. His books and research papers explore these themes and propose pragmatic solutions to our increasingly polarized society.