Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Russian counterpart on Friday, marking the first time the U.S. and Russian defense chiefs have talked since before Moscow invaded Ukraine.

We’ll look at details of the call. Plus, we’ll examine President Biden’s support for Finland and Sweden applying for NATO membership.

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Jordan Williams.  Subscribe here.

Austin speaks with Russian defense chief

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Russian defense minister Sergey Shoygu on Friday, marking the first time the two have spoken since before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine began.  

Austin “urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a readout of the call.  

The last time they spoke: Austin spoke with Shoygu on Feb. 18, less than a week before Russia’s invasion began. 

A month into the invasion, Kirby acknowledged that Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley had unsuccessfully tried to engage with his counterparts. The Washington Post was the first to report the dilemma.  

“There are vehicles, we still have military-to-military communications with the Russians,” Kirby told Fox News at the time. “But at the senior levels, where we think it’s really important particularly right now, that’s not happening. And it’s not happening because the Russians don’t seem to be interested.” 

Austin got through: A senior defense official told reporters that the call was initiated by Austin and lasted about an hour, with the tone characterized as “professional.” 

It was unclear what changed on the Russian side to engage in the call, but Austin hopes it “will serve as a springboard for future conversations,” according to the official.

However, Austin “continues to have concerns about what’s going on in Ukraine,” and the call itself “didn’t specifically solve any acute issues or lead to a direct change in what the Russians are doing and what they’re saying,” the official said.   

Interaction with Ukraine: Whereas Austin and Milley have had a hard time speaking with their Russian counterparts, the two have remained close with their Ukrainian counterparts. 

Austin has held multiple conversations with Ukrainian defense minister Oleksii Reznikov throughout the invasion, and the two most recently spoke on Thursday.  

Also on Thursday, Milley spoke with Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. According to a readout of the call, the two “continued to exchange perspectives and assessments of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.”

Biden backs Finland, Sweden joining NATO

President Biden on Friday spoke with the leaders of Finland and Sweden and said he would support a decision by each country to join NATO, the White House said. 

The call comes as both countries are weighing membership in NATO amid Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Recapping the call: “President Biden underscored his support for NATO’s Open Door policy and for the right of Finland and Sweden to decide their own future, foreign policy, and security arrangements,” the White House said in a readout of the secure call between Biden, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö.   

“The leaders also discussed the close partnership among our countries across a range of global issues, based on our common values and interests,” the readout of the 40-minute call said. “They reiterated their shared commitment to continued coordination in support of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people affected by the war.”

Something to watch for: Niinistö in a joint statement with the country’s prime minister this week called for Finland to apply for membership “without delay.” Sweden is also expected to follow suit in the coming days.   

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Saturday with the foreign ministers of Sweden, Finland and NATO members in Berlin, where the officials are likely to lay the groundwork for the countries joining the alliance.   

Read the story here.

Pentagon to replace 10,500 troops in Europe 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered the deployment of 10,500 troops to replace troops that have been previously deployed to Europe.   

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters that the troops will be deployed “in the coming months,” adding that the U.S.’s force posture in Europe will remain unchanged.  

Who’s going over? About 500 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky. will replace the solders 82nd Airborne division currently in Europe, Kirby said.  

The Second Infantry Brigade Combat Team 101st Airborne Division will also deploy about 4,200 soldiers from Fort Campbell to replace troops from the Third Infantry Brigade Combat Team of 82nd Airborne Division in Poland.  

The third Armored Brigade Combat Team First Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas will deploy another 4,200 soldiers to replace the First Armored Brigade, Third Infantry Division in Germany.  

Additionally, the first Armored Division Combat Aviation Brigade of approximately 1,800 service members from Fort Bliss, Texas will replace the First Air Cavalry Brigade supporting Operation Atlantic Resolve, which has been a rotational deployment for the Army since 2014.   

Won’t last forever: “These are not permanent moves,” Kirby said. “These moves are designed to respond to the current security environment.  

“Moreover, these forces are not going to fight in Ukraine, they are going to support the robust defense of NATO allies,” he added. 

U.S. forces in Europe: The U.S. has deployed and repositioned thousands of troops to bolster allies in Europe in February and March amid Russia’s aggressions toward Ukraine.  

Most recently, Austin deployed additional aviation capabilities to the region, which totaled approximately 200 personnel. These deployments brought the total number of US personnel in Europe to 100,000.  

Kirby said that Friday’s deployments will leave that number unchanged, as the deployments are a “are one- for-one-unit replacements.” 

Read the story here.

ON TAP FOR MONDAY

  • The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies will host its virtual Schriever Spacepower Forum with Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, Commander of Space Operations Command, at 9 a.m. 
  • The East-West Center will host a seminar on “India and the Sino-Russian Reorder in Eurasia” at 12 p.m. 
  • The National Defense Industrial Organization begin the 2022 Space Operations Forces Industry Conference” at 12 p.m. 
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host an event “On the Future of the Marine Corps: Assessing Force Design 2030” at 1 p.m. 
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a discussion on “The Future of Quantum – Driving Innovation and Security from the Government” at 3 p.m. 

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you Monday!

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