WASHINGTON — The NATO nations must open up firm lines of communication with Russia in order to avoid further escalation of tensions in Europe, the alliance's recently retired top general said Wednesday.

Philip Breedlove, who retired last month after four years as the head of US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, told an audience at the Atlantic Council that he believes NATO must force the issue of communications with Russia soon.

"I think we have to — in a very determined way, not a casual way — we need to in a very determined way begin to establish quality communications with the Russians. If we wait for it to fall into our lap we are going to fail, and this risks more problematic developments," Breedlove said, acknowledging that Russia is unlikely to reach out and that NATO must take the lead.

"We have to, with purpose, set forth to establish a line of communications. It may be frustrated and frustrating in the beginning, but we really, I don't think, have any choice at this point. We need to move out."

Breedlove's comments echo those of former US defense secretary Chuck Hagel, who in May told reporters that the next president needs to sit down with Russian leader Vladimir Putin for face-to-face conversations.

The November elections in the US provide an opportunity, Breedlove noted. A new administration could come in and use a clean slate to reach out to Putin. However, if the new government in Washington is unwilling to do that, Breedlove pointed to alternatives, including military communications based on the 1972 Incidents at Sea agreement between Russia and the US.

Regardless of how it happens, the retired general said, there is no time to waste.

"Frankly, I think we need to go there," Breedlove said. "I think we need to begin to have meaningful dialogue, and the question is, is that dialogue possible by our government or is that some sort of track-2-on-steroids that begins those conversations. I don't know."

At the same time, Breedlove said the key to keeping NATO countries safe is to make sure Russia sees a strong and united military alliance.

"Russia does understand power, and strength, and unity," he noted.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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