US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged “an immediate ceasefire” in Ukraine, the Department of Defense said, as the Pentagon chief held the first talks with his Russian counterpart since the war began.
Austin confirmed the call in a tweet Friday, saying he spoke to Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu for the first time since February 18.
“I urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and I emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication,” Austin’s tweet said.
The call came as Russian forces continue their offensive in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, which has prompted US President Joe Biden’s administration to pledge billions of dollars in military and humanitarian assistance to Kyiv.
Austin has tried multiple times to talk with Shoigu since Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour began on February 24, but officials said the Russian side had appeared uninterested.
A US official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity, said Friday’s call between the two leaders lasted about an hour but did not solve any specific issues or lead to direct changes in what the Russians are doing in Ukraine.
The official described the tone of the call as “professional”.
The Russian defence ministry said the call happened “at the initiative of the American side”, Russia’s TASS news agency reported.
“Topical issues of international security were discussed, including the situation in Ukraine,” TASS said, quoting the ministry.
Russia has repeatedly warned Washington and its European allies against providing Kyiv with heavy artillery and other weapons that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for to stave off the Russian offensive in the country’s east.
Zelenskyy told Al Jazeera in an interview last month that if Russia succeeds in capturing the eastern region, it may make another attempt to capture the capital, Kyiv.
This week, Avril Haines, the US director of national intelligence, also said the Russian military’s shift to the Donbas region is only temporary.
“We assess President [Vladimir] Putin is preparing for a prolonged conflict in Ukraine during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas,” Haines told US lawmakers on Tuesday.
“We assess that Putin’s strategic goals have probably not changed, suggesting he regards the decision in late March to refocus Russian forces on the Donbas is only a temporary shift to regain the initiative after the Russian military’s failure to capture Kyiv.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Zelenskyy said he was ready to hold face-to-face talks with Putin to end the conflict, which the United Nations says has now forced more than six million refugees to flee Ukraine.
“I am ready to talk to Putin, but only to him. Without any of his intermediaries. And in the framework of dialogue, not ultimatums,” the Ukrainian president said in an interview with Italian broadcaster Rai 1.
He said, however, that the chance such discussions could be held was “complicated”.
“It is because every day small towns are being de-occupied, and we see the traces of harassment, torture, executions left by the Russian military. That is why the possibility of talks gets complicated,” Zelenskyy said.