Austin asks Russian Defense Minister for ceasefire in Ukraine

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday urged his Russian counterpart to consider a ceasefire in Ukraine in the first talk between the two leaders since the start of the Russian invasion. nearly three months ago, the Pentagon said.

Austin had not communicated with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu since February 18 – six days before Russia began its assault on Ukraine – despite repeated attempts by US officials to do so, a senior US defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with ground rules set by the Pentagon. The two men spoke for about an hour and the manager called their conversation “professional” but declined to elaborate on what was said.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin puts pressure on Ukraine – but quietly

“It was not for lack of trying that we were unable to establish” communications, the official said. “We have consistently requested this conversation, and Minister Shoigu accepted a call this week. But what motivated them to change their minds and be open to it, I don’t think we know for sure.

The discussion took place as Russia expanded its military presence in Ukraine, especially in the eastern regions of the country after failing to capture the capital Kyiv and withdrawing thousands of soldiers. Russia now has about 105 battalion tactical groups in Ukraine, Pentagon says Friday, up slightly from the Department of Defense tally last week.

Shoigu and Austin also spoke as two countries, Finland and Sweden, take steps to apply for NATO membership, a move officials say would strengthen their long-term security but leave them potentially vulnerable to Russian retaliation. Each of NATO’s 30 current members must approve membership applications, a process that can take months.

The majority of the Russian army’s efforts are now focused on Donbass, a part of eastern Ukraine that Moscow seems to want to seize. Russian forces have attempted in recent days to push south from the town of Izyum, which they already control, to the city of Sloviansk, but have encountered fierce Ukrainian resistance, the senior US official said. of the defense.

Russian forces made “incremental” gains west of the town of Popasna, southeast of Sloviansk, the official added, but Ukrainian officials succeeded north of the town of Kharkiv, a major center of northeast population.

“We basically assessed that Ukrainians continue to make progress in recovering towns and villages around Kharkiv,” the official said. “We have seen progress on their part in bringing Russian forces closer to the border and away from Kharkiv.”

The fighting in the area has turned into “a two-way artillery fight”, the senior US defense official said. In one example, Ukrainian forces used artillery fire to thwart Russia is trying to cross the Siverskyi Donets, a river that flows from southern Russia into Ukraine, the defense official said. Ukrainian officials said in a Facebook post that they had destroyed numerous Russian vehicles near the town of Lyman.

The Pentagon also said that Ukraine is trying to retake Snake Island, off the Ukraine-Romania border. Russia seized it early in the invasion, but satellite images released by Maxar on Thursday appeared to show the aftermath of missile attacks on a Russian military landing craft near the island. Images show smoke rising from locations recently hit by ordnance, the company said.

Separately, the military revealed on Friday that four units were on rotation for new forces bolstering security in Eastern Europe – a sign that officials believe the fighting in Ukraine is likely to drag on.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the deployments were temporary, but said Austin and his team were still considering what the permanent US military presence in Europe should look like in light of the invasion. There are more than 100,000 U.S. troops deployed across Europe, an influx of about 20,000 since the build-up to Russia’s invasion, and officials anticipate that at least some of those additional numbers will currently be the along NATO’s eastern flank will remain for years to come.

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