WASHINGTON — US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has ordered his staff to begin communications with Russia to deconflict air operations in Syria.
The news comes as the Pentagon’s top Russia expert is preparing to leave the department.
According to Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook, Carter directed senior staff to open lines of communications this morning. He would not say which staffers were running the talks, nor at what level they would be happening, but noted that “we expect the details of those conversations, including the exact timing of those conversations, will be worked out in the coming days.”
The goal of the talks, Cook said, are to ensure “that ongoing coalition air operations are not interrupted by any future Russian military activity, to ensure the safety of coalition air crews, and to avoid misjudgment and miscalculation.
“We do not want an accident to take place,” he later added. “That is one of the key motivators for moving this forward.”
The discussions represent a major step between the two nations, following a sit-down with US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the United Nations on Monday. Military conversation between the US and Russia was cut off following the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
The issue of potential deconfliction has been a concern since Russia began moving military air assets into Syria in mid-September. There are now more than two dozen Russian fighters in the country, according to open source data, and the assumption is that strikes could begin soon.
The question is open as to the target of those strikes. While the US and Russia share a common enemy in the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, Russia is acting to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the US has explicitly called upon to step down.
US-aligned forces fighting against ISIL could potentially become the focus of Russian strikes as well.
Asked whether the US would act to protect aligned forces from Russian attacks, Cook said there is concern about “any effort that would be made to harm the moderate opposition forces that are taking the fight to ISIL.
“The reason for this conversation is because of the prospect of future Russian military action ... we’re flying already and we want to make sure it’s done in as safe a manner as possible and that our coalition effort is not interrupted in any way by the Russian activities,” Cook said.
Specifically asked if these deconfliction talks would extend to cover potential operations in Iraq, Cook reiterated that discussions are just getting going but did not rule out that possibility.
Ironically, military talks are opening up between the two sides just as the Pentagon’s top Russian expert is expected to leave the department.
Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, will be leaving her post at the end of October, a Pentagon spokesperson confirmed. The news was first reported by Politico.
Farkas has previously held a number of top European-focused positions with the department, including senior adviser to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe/Commander, US European Command. She also spent seven years as a staffer with the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A previous version of this story misidentified the US as having invaded Ukraine. In late 2014, it was reported that Russian troops crossed the border into Ukraine.