Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attends a virtual meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, Wednesday, March 15, 2023, at the Pentagon in Washington. AP
It was the first call between Austin and Defense Secretary Sergei Shoigu since October.
“I just got off the phone with my Russian counterpart, Minister Shoigu,” Austin said at a Pentagon press briefing. “As I’ve said repeatedly, it’s important that great powers be models of transparency and communication, and the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows.”
The U.S. military said it ditched the Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in the sea after a Russian fighter jet struck its propeller. Russia has denied that it caused the incident. The U.S. has said it was working on declassifying surveillance footage from the drone that would show Tuesday's crash.
That Austin and Shoigu were talking underscored the seriousness of the encounter over the Black Sea. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, contact between U.S. and Russian military leaders has been limited, with Russian officials refusing to take U.S. military calls in the early months of the war.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he also planned to talk to his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces.
Gerasimov was named the new commander of the Russian forces in Ukraine in January and its previous commander demoted in an apparent sign of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dissatisfaction with the state of the war, which has been stalemated.
Austin and Shoigu first spoke about Russia's invasion of Ukraine in May 2022. At the time it was the highest level U.S.-Russian contact of the war.
In October, they spoke twice in three days as the threat of an escalation was high. Shoigu had accused Ukraine of planning to use a dirty bomb, a claim that was strongly rejected by U.S. and Western allies, who accused Russia of seeking a false pretext to justify further escalation, potentially including the use of a tactical nuclear weapon.
The downed $32 million U.S. drone, which contains sensitive technology, has not been recovered. The U.S. does not have military ships operating in the Black Sea, which has been closed since early 2022 to all military vessels except those that have home ports along the sea’s coast, which includes Russia.
U.S. officials said Russia has already sent ships to the area and attempted to recover pieces of the drone. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.