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The Pentagon’s top military officer discussed with his Russian counterpart an apparent offer from Russian President Vladimir Putin to use his military’s bases in Central Asia to respond to any emerging terrorist threats in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised the subject at the request of President Biden’s National Security Council staff in his meeting last Wednesday with Russian Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the U.S. officials said.
Gen. Gerasimov was noncommittal during the Helsinki meeting, the U.S. officials said. A Kremlin spokesman declined to comment.
The previously unreported exchange comes as the Biden administration is searching for ways to strengthen its capability to monitor and respond to potential terrorist dangers in Afghanistan now that U.S. forces have left the country.
While the U.S. and Russia share concerns about the threat of terrorism, the idea of working with Russia on counterterrorism is fraught with challenges, particularly politically. Congress enacted legislation several years ago that precludes close cooperation between the U.S. and Russia militaries as long as Russian troops are in Ukraine, unless the secretary of defense issues a special waiver.
Gen. Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to come under sharp questioning from lawmakers Tuesday over the Pentagon’s planning for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. At the appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen Milley is also likely to face questions about the recent discussions with Gen. Gerasimov and phone calls with his Chinese counterpart in the final weeks of the Trump administration.
Last week’s discussion between the top U.S. and Russian military officers had its roots in the June 16 summit meeting in Geneva between Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin floated the idea of hosting U.S. military personnel on Russian bases, according to U.S. officials and the Russian newspaper Kommersant.
That prompted the NSC staff to ask Gen. Milley to clarify whether Mr. Putin was simply making a debating point or was hinting at a serious offer, the U.S. officials said.
Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for Gen. Milley, citing the privacy of the conversation between Gens. Milley and Gerasimov, declined to comment on the meeting, which was part of a series of periodic consultations between the two military leaders.
“We won’t comment on this matter,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
When Mr. Biden announced in April that he was withdrawing all forces from Afghanistan, he said the U.S. would ensure that al Qaeda or Islamic State didn’t regain strength and pose a threat to the U.S. To do so, U.S. officials said they would build an over-the-horizon capability to conduct airstrikes and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, from outside Afghanistan.
For now, the U.S. is relying on bases in the Gulf region, including in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. That means drones and other aircraft must fly from several hundred miles away, limiting the amount of time they can linger over potential targets. So U.S. officials have also looked to Central Asia to base drones and other aircraft.
The Biden administration has repeatedly said that it is prepared to cooperate with Russia in areas in which the two sides have common interests while opposing Russian policies that go against U.S. interests.
At their Geneva meeting, Mr. Putin told Mr. Biden that he opposed American efforts to negotiate access for U.S. forces with Central Asian governments and that China would oppose it as well.
Instead Mr. Putin floated the idea that U.S. military units might use Russian military bases in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, Kommersant said. U.S. officials confirmed that Mr. Putin made such comments, but said that it wasn’t clear if he was serious.
While the U.S. military would like access to temporarily position forces in Central Asia, American officials haven’t publicly talked about the possibility of deploying U.S. military units on Russian bases.
A Biden administration official said the U.S. isn’t seeking Moscow’s permission to position forces closer to Afghanistan but wanted to better understand Mr. Putin’s position.
“We will pursue our own policies based on our own objectives,” the official said. “The reality is Russia is an element of the equation in the region and so we are engaging with them.”
Congress, in legislation passed for the 2017 defense budget and reaffirmed since, prohibits the use of funds to support U.S.-Russian military-to-military cooperation unless Moscow removes the forces it sent into Ukraine in 2014 when it annexed Crimea and abides by a peace agreement. The defense secretary can waive those provisions, but has never done so.
Some members of Congress remain suspicious of Moscow’s motives. “Russia is more concerned with gathering intelligence on the U.S. and our allies than it is sharing information on terrorist threats,” said a letter several senior Republican lawmakers sent Monday to Mr. Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The letter was signed by Sen. James Risch of Idaho, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee.
The letter asked for a briefing on the Biden administration’s counterterrorism plan, “including efforts to secure third country agreements with Afghanistan’s neighbors for basing, ISR and strike capabilities.”