The top United States military leader, Joint Chiefs Chair General Mark Milley, met with his Russian counterpart, Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, in Helsinki on Wednesday.
The meeting of the two military leaders comes after the chaotic US military withdrawal from Afghanistan unleashed a new humanitarian crisis in Central Asia and as Washington seeks to coordinate with neighbouring powers on countering armed groups.
“It was a productive meeting. When military leaders of great powers communicate, the world is a safer place,” Milley told The Associated Press.
Both sides agreed not to disclose details of the meeting, as has been the practice in previous meetings and calls, the AP reported. But the US basing issue around Afghanistan was a key topic for Milley with NATO counterparts in Greece over the weekend.
Russia and the US have been engaged in a dialogue on strategic stability following the Geneva summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and Russia President Vladimir Putin in June. But the rapid US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan and the sudden rise of the Taliban government in Kabul have raised new security concerns.
Gerasimov and Milley, meeting at a residence near Helsinki, discussed issues of mutual interest including risk mitigation in military activities, according to a report by RIA Novosti, a Russian news service.
The Russian Ministry of Defence said “The meeting was constructive,” RIA reported.
Milley and Gerasimov had previously met in 2019 and have had a number of phone calls. Russia and the US have held deconfliction discussions in the past on military operations in the Black Sea, Syria and the Ukraine.
US officials fear al-Qaeda and ISIL affiliates will be able to reconstitute quickly in Afghanistan and pose threats to Western interests in neighbouring countries and potentially the US homeland.
The US has asked for basing agreements, overflight rights and increased intelligence-sharing with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan but encountered opposition from Russia. Pakistan has refused to allow US spy plane or drone flights over its territory.
The US can fly into Afghanistan from the Al Udeid airbase in Qatar, where the US military has about 10,000 service personnel. Al Udeid served as a hub for the emergency evacuation of US citizens and Afghans from Kabul last month.
But the distances from bases in the Gulf region often require costly aerial refueling and leave pilots little time over Afghanistan. The US military admitted last week that an August 29 drone strike in Kabul intended to defend US troops at the airport mistakenly killed 10 civilians.
The US had used a base at Manas, Kyrgyzstan to move US troops in and out of Afghanistan during much of the war. But under pressure from Russia, Kyrgyzstan insisted the US vacate the base in 2014.
The US had leased an airbase at Karshi-Khanabad, known as K2, in Uzbekistan after the Afghanistan war began, but Uzbekistan ordered it closed in 2005 amid tensions with Washington.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergey Ryabkov had said in July – as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was proceeding – that any deployment of American troops in neighbouring countries would be “unacceptable”.
Russia told the US “in a direct and straightforward way that it would change a lot of things not only in our perceptions of what’s going on in that important region, but also in our relations with the United States”, Ryabkov said.
Ryabkov also said Russia had a “frank talk” with the Central Asian countries to warn them not to allow US troops within their borders.