Amid China controversy, Milley holds Russia meeting for 'risk reduction,' keeps conversation details private

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley met with his Russian counterpart in Helsinki Wednesday – a meeting the Pentagon said was a “continuation” of talks between the two nations focused on “risk reduction” and “de-confliction.”

The spokesman for the Joint Staff, Col. Dave Butler, said Milley met with Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov on Wednesday in Finland. But Butler added in a statement, “In accordance with past practice, both have agreed to keep the specific details of their conversation private.”

Milley’s meeting came after days of scrutiny following allegations included in the book “Peril,” co-written by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward and national political correspondent Robert Costa.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley met with Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Wednesday, Sept. 22 in Helsinki, Finland. (Photo: Department of Defense)
(Department of Defense)

The allegations, made public last week, said Milley made two secret phone calls, both to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army, during the Trump administration. The book alleges that the phone calls took place prior to the 2020 presidential election, on Oct. 30, 2020, and then two days after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, on Jan. 8, 2021. 

The book claims Milley contacted Li after he had reviewed intelligence that suggested Chinese officials believed the United States was planning an attack on China amid military exercises in the South China Sea. The authors of the book also claim Milley contacted Li a second time to reassure him that the U.S. would not make any type of advances or attack China in any form, as Milley promised, “We are 100% steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”

Butler, Milley’s spokesperson, has defended the talks, saying the conversations are “vital” to “reducing tensions” and “avoiding unintended consequences or conflict,” maintaining that the calls were coordinated with high-level defense officials.

“The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs regularly communicates with Chiefs of Defense across the world, including with China and Russia. These conversations remain vital to improving mutual understanding of U.S. national security interests, reducing tensions, providing clarity and avoiding unintended consequences or conflict,” Butler said last week. 

Butler said that Milley’s calls “with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability.” 

“All calls from the Chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency,” Butler said.

“Also in keeping with his responsibilities as senior military advisor to the President and Secretary of Defense, General Milley frequently conducts meetings with uniformed leaders across the Services to ensure all leaders are aware of current issues,” Butler continued. “The meeting regarding nuclear weapons protocols was to remind uniformed leaders in the Pentagon of the long-established and robust procedures in light of media reporting on the subject.” 

Butler added: “General Milley continues to act and advise within his authority in the lawful tradition of civilian control of the military and his oath to the Constitution.”

But former acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who led the Pentagon from the period after the 2020 election through Inauguration Day, fired back, saying he “did not and would not ever authorize” Milley to have “secret” calls with his Chinese counterpart, describing the allegations as a “disgraceful and unprecedented act of insubordination” and calling on him to resign “immediately.” 

Meanwhile, President Biden said he has “great confidence” in Milley, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki doubling down, saying Biden “has complete confidence in his leadership, his patriotism and his fidelity to our Constitution.”

As for Russia, Biden met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, maintained that the U.S. relationship with Russia “has to be stable and predictable,” and said the countries “should be able to cooperate where it is in our mutual interest,” adding that the relationship is “not about trust” but “self-interest and verification of self-interest.” 

“There were no threats, just simple assertions made,” Biden said after his meeting with Putin in June. “It was just letting him know where I stood, what I thought we could accomplish together, and what, in fact, if there is violations of American sovereignty, what we would do.” 

Biden, at the time, said he “doesn’t think Putin is looking for a Cold War with the United States.” 

During his speech at the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, Biden, echoing a similar sentiment, without mentioning Russia or China by name, said: “We are not seeking the new Cold War, or the world divided into rigid blocks.”

“The United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up, that pursues peaceful resolution to shared challenges, even if we have intense disagreement to shared challenges, because we will all suffer the consequences of our failures if we don’t come together to tackle COVID-19, climate change or threats like nuclear proliferation,” Biden said. 

He added: “United States military power must be our tool of last resort, not our first. It should not be used as an answer to every problem we see around the world.” 

Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin contributed to this report.

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