WASHINGTON — As top Russian and US officials try to hash out a new agreement for combating the Islamic State group in Syria, the Pentagon's two top officials are emphasizing that they can work with Russia even while not trusting them.
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters multiple times Tuesday that trust between the two nations is not a make-or-break factor in any agreement.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Laos for a conference, where he is expected to meet with his Russian counterpart to hash out a new agreement on information sharing in Syria to try and become more effective against ISIS.
The timing for the negotiations has become awkward as a suspected Russian hack of Democratic National Committee (DNC) data has thrown a spotlight onto Russian espionage efforts, with top Democrats now openly questioning whether the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to influence the presidential election in favor of Republican Donald Trump.
Carter said the Pentagon is looped in on the negotiations and is in constant contact with Kerry as they move forward, but both he and Dunford emphasized that trust is simply not a factor as the discussions move forward.
"They're not based on trust," Carter said of the negotiations. "They're based on a transaction and on mutual interest to the extent — and when and as we're able to identify that with the Russians.
"To the extent that Russia can align with U.S. interests, we work with them as has been the case in Iran, North Korea and other places where US and Russian interests have aligned. It's the alignment of those interests that Secretary Kerry's exploring. That's what it's about."
Dunford reiterated that the relationship is purely about business and that business can get done even when two sides don't trust each other.
"We have a transaction. It's not based on trust and it's based on measures that we take to ensure that our operational security is protected," Dunford said. "We're not entering into a transaction that's founded on trust. There will be specific procedures and processes in any transaction we might have with the Russians that would account for protecting our operational security."
Asked specifically about the DNC hack, Carter declined to comment and pointed reporters to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Speaking earlier in the day, State Department spokesman John Kirby also referred reporters to the FBI, but also said: "I think it goes without saying that issues of cybersecurity remain a topic of discussion between us and our Russian interlocutors on a continuous basis."