WASHINGTON – The top U.S. military officer said Wednesday that he tried to reach out to his Russian counterpart in the aftermath of the missile explosions in Poland, but wasn't able to get through.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said his staff tried to get Russia's top-ranking military official Gen. Valery Gerasimov on the phone to discuss the incident with “no success.”
Milley didn’t elaborate on the efforts, but the lack of communications raises concerns about high-level U.S.-Russian communications in a crisis. A strike against Poland, a NATO member, could have risked a larger conflict if it turned out that Russia had launched the strike.
The U.S. and other top leaders now say they believe the strike was probably launched by Ukrainian air defenses to defend against a Russian missile bombardment. But uncertainty swirled for hours. Several U.S. defense officials said it isn't unusual for Gerasimov to not be available for a call.
The lack of communication is worrisome, especially given the potential implications of the strike, said John Tierney, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.
Open lines of communication “are vital if we are to avoid the risk of conflict caused by misconception, miscalculations or mistake,” Tierney said. “It is unsettling to learn from General Milley that his counterpart was unreachable or not willing to engage when an explosion occurred in Poland.”
Milley did talk to his military counterparts in Ukraine and Poland as the governments worked quickly to assess whether the missile that killed two people in Poland had been launched by Russia or Ukraine.
The conversation came as Milley has said that Russia's recent defeat in the key southern city Kherson and the possible slowdown of military operations in the winter could provide an opportunity to negotiate.
“You want to negotiate at a time when you’re at your strength, and your opponent is at weakness,” Milley said at a Pentagon briefing Wednesday. “The Russian military is suffering tremendously," he said, citing large losses of Russian tanks, fighting vehicles, fighter jets and helicopters.
If fighting slows down, Milley said that may become “a window” for talks about a political solution.
Both he and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that they expect Ukraine to keep fighting through the winter, and the U.S. and its allies will continue to provide more support and weapons. And it will be up to Ukraine to determine any negotiation plans.
“We’ve said repeatedly that the Ukrainians are going to decide that and not us. And we will support them for as long as it takes,” said Austin, who was also at the briefing.
The missile that landed in Poland Tuesday was launched during the "largest wave of missiles that we’ve seen since the beginning of the war,” Austin said. On Tuesday Russia launched as many as 100 missiles at Ukraine as Moscow intensifies its airstrikes following significant ground losses.
Milley said it's unlikely that either side can gain a military victory quickly. He said the chance of Russia, which currently controls about 20% of Ukraine, overrunning the entire country “is close to zero.” And, he added, the “task of militarily kicking the Russians physically out of Ukraine is a very difficult task. And it’s not going to happen in the next couple of weeks unless the Russian army completely collapses, which is unlikely.”