The top U.S. and Russian military officers met in Helsinki Tuesday to discuss Russia's invasion of Georgia and related issues. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.
It was the first meeting between the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and his new Russian counterpart General Nikolai Makarov, who took command of the Russian military just before it invaded Georgia in August.
After the meeting, Admiral Mullen told reporters he made clear to the general that U.S.-Russia military relations will not go immediately back to where they were before the invasion. But the admiral said he also stressed the importance of keeping channels of communication open.
In a telephone interview from the delegation's next stop in Latvia, the admiral's spokesman, Captain John Kirby, told VOA that Mullen delivered a firm message during the meeting. "The chairman was clear that the events in Georgia have changed our relationship. And it's important to understand how and why that occurred and then figure out a way to continue to move forward," he said.
But Kirby says Admiral Mullen was also in Helsinki to listen to what General Makarov had to say. "What he said when he came out of the meeting today was that for him it was an opportunity as well to listen to General Makarov's viewpoint, although he didn't agree with everything that his counterpart said. But it was an opportunity to listen and try to recognize what some of their concerns are, and try to lay the foundation for an ongoing dialogue, an ongoing conversation, if you will, about these very, very challenging security issues," he said.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said Russia must suffer some consequences for its move into Georgia. The United States has cancelled several planned military exchanges with Russia in the wake of the Georgia invasion, and there is no indication of when such exchanges might resume. Admiral Mullen said Tuesday the details of future exchanges need to be worked out, and his spokesman, Captain Kirby, indicated no dramatic change is imminent.
"I don't think this is the harbinger of some sort of new dawn, but it certainly is important to remember that the relationship between Russia and the United States militarily is important. It needs to be carefully considered," he said. "And what we're trying to do is find a way forward here that recognizes our disagreements, and there are some and will be some in the future, but again try to focus on the future."
Captain Kirby says the two military leaders did not make any firm plan to meet again, but did agree in principle to continue their dialogue and to work to improve U.S.-Russian military relations.
Admiral Mullen and General Makarov have spoken before, including a telephone conversation while Russian troops were still deep inside Georgia. At that time, the general assured the admiral that Russian troops would not interfere with U.S. military aid flights to Georgia.
After the Helsinki meeting, Admiral Mullen flew to Latvia, where he said he wanted "to send a very visible message of reassurance" to U.S. allies near Russia's borders. Standing with Latvia's prime minister Valdis Zatlers, the admiral said the United States is "not accepting in any way, shape or form what the Russians did in Georgia."