The Complex

Hagel’s Hotline to the Kremlin

When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his Russian counterpart back in December, the Pentagon hailed it as the first-ever video teleconference between U.S. and Russian defense chiefs. Hagel and Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu talked chemical weapons in Syria and missile defense issues and vowed to stay in close touch. The Pentagon even ...

Olivier Hoslet/AFP
Olivier Hoslet/AFP

When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his Russian counterpart back in December, the Pentagon hailed it as the first-ever video teleconference between U.S. and Russian defense chiefs. Hagel and Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu talked chemical weapons in Syria and missile defense issues and vowed to stay in close touch. The Pentagon even released pictures of the Skype-like chat.

That was long before Russia annexed Crimea, sparking a crisis that has plunged Washington’s relationship with Moscow to its lowest point in decades. Today, the relationship that Hagel has begun to forge with his Russian counterpart is one of the few lines of communication that Washington has with Moscow. In the past, these kinds of so-called "mil-to-mil" dialogues have helped the U.S. smooth over tensions, negotiate deals over things like shipping routes through Pakistan, and avert crises in places like the Asia-Pacific. When it comes to Ukraine, however, the conversations have so far failed to alter the tense dynamics between the two countries.

The most recent call between the defense chiefs, on Monday, took several days to schedule, leading to speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin had initially been reluctant to allow it in the first place. And indeed, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, it’s up to Putin to decide how effective those talks can be.

"Being secretary of defense is a very powerful position, but you can only have influence in cases where the country is willing to listen and willing to bargain with the secretary," he said. "And in this case, I think that will only happen if Putin wants it to happen."

Although media reports indicated that Moscow had suspended high-level discussions with Washington, the White House said the two countries were still in contact. Obama and Putin haven’t spoken since April 14, however, which has largely left it to Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry to keep the lines open.

During Hagel’s call with Shoygu Monday, their second since the crisis began, Defense Department officials said that Hagel pressed for concrete details about Russia’s intentions toward eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has massed tens of thousands of troops. Shoygu assured Hagel that Russia had no plans to invade, the officials said.

"The call between Minister Shoygu and Hagel was not two people talking past each other," said a senior defense official, who described Monday’s 45-minute conversation as civil, candid and forthright, but also "terse at times."

"It was noteworthy that while they did not agree on everything, they did agree to continue talking, and that’s not insignificant," the official said.

Last week, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke for a second time with his counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian military, to convey his concerns about what Dempsey described as Russia’s "aggressive military behavior." That included an incident that occurred with the USS Donald Cook earlier this month in which a Russian fighter jet buzzed the American destroyer in the Black Sea about a dozen times. The two agreed to "keep an open line of communication," according to a later readout of the call. And despite an official suspension of the military relationship with the Russian military, Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander in Europe, has also been in close touch with his own counterparts there.

The mil-to-mil relationships between the U.S. and countries like Egypt and Pakistan have always been hugely important for top military leaders, and those in uniform have taken great pride in maintaining them even when diplomatic ties were strained or non-existent.

"Relationships between militaries (both uniformed and defense ministers) become even more important when diplomatic, economic, and political relations fray," Jim Stavridis, the retired Navy admiral who last served as supreme allied commander in Europe, wrote in an email. "While they will not always advance the situation, they almost always have the effect of preventing things from getting catastrophically worse."

Generally speaking, the channel allows commanders and military chiefs to prevent a crisis and engage in an "exchange of information" that is typically seen by both sides as separate and apart from the political dialogue between two countries.

Since Hagel arrived at the Pentagon, it has fallen to him to keep the lines of communication open with a number of countries. He has talked to his counterpart in Israel, Moshe Ya’alon, numerous times and aides have said the two have connected on a personal level. But Hagel’s attempts to leverage his relationships with countries like Russia have been far less successful.

In the wake of Egypt’s coup, for instance, Hagel spoke repeatedly with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the then-head of Egypt’s military, and pressed him to adopt a path of moderation toward the Muslim Brotherhood and avoid taking on too much power. At the time, Pentagon officials said that Hagel’s phone calls with Sisi were "basically the only viable channel of communication during the crisis." The calls didn’t prevent Sisi from banning the Muslim Brotherhood and sentencing hundreds of its members to death after what were effectively show trials. Pentagon officials have maintained that the discussions prevented the relationship between Cairo and Washington from free-fall, but it also deteriorated to the point that the U.S. suspended much of its aid to Egypt. However, last week, the Pentagon announced that it had partially lifted the ban and cleared the way for 10 Apache helicopters to be delivered to Egypt.

The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, famously maintained a robust dialogue with his functional equivalent, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, head of the Pakistan Army, talking with him by phone frequently and visiting more than a couple dozen times. Officials said the relationship, which both men cultivated and maintained painstakingly, was crucial during any a number of issues between the two governments, from flaps over CIA drone strikes inside Pakistan to issues pertaining to military shipments from Afghanistan to Pakistani ports. The relationship was also seen as key as to Washington’s efforts to persuade Pakistan to be more aggressive against militants in its lawless border regions.

The key, though, is for men like Hagel and Shoygu to build a sustainable, long-term relationship — not one used only as a matter of convenience or during times of crisis.

"As is often said, you cannot surge trust," Stavridis said. "Three cups of tea is only the beginning."

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