The United States military is prohibited by law from cooperating with their Russian counterparts, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. armed forces declared during a discussion on American national security priorities hosted by the Brookings Institution.
However, there is communication between the Russian and American militaries, added Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In the context of Syria, the two militaries maintain lines of communication open “to protect” American airmen and U.S. troops on the ground, noted the highest-ranking military officer in the United States.
“I am restricted by law from cooperating with the Russians at the military and military level, which is completely different from [maintaining] a communication channel,” said Gen. Dunford at the Brookings Institution Thursday, echoing recent comments Secretary of Defense James Mattis made.
During the discussion, the general designated Russia an existential threat to the United States.
The Joint Chiefs chairman pointed out that there is a provision in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law by former President Barack Obama, “that prevents” the U.S. “from having military to military cooperation” with Russia.
The provision reads:
None of the funds authorized to be appropriated for fiscal year 2017 for the Department of Defense may be used for any bilateral military-to-military cooperation between the Governments of the United States and the Russian Federation until the Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State, certifies to the appropriate congressional committees that—
(1) the Russian Federation has ceased its occupation of Ukrainian territory and its aggressive activities that threaten the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; and
(2) the Russian Federation is abiding by the terms of and taking steps in support of the Minsk Protocols regarding a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
The 2017 NDAA does grant the secretary of defense the authority to waive the limitation if he “determines that the waiver is in the national security interest of the United States.”
Last week, Secretary of Defense Mattis told reporters that the United States military is “not in a position” at the moment to “collaborate” with their Russian counterparts.
Referring to the first meeting between him and his Russian counterpart on February 16, Gen. Dunford stressed that their discussions were “not in the context of any change in policy and had nothing to do with the administration.”
“I wouldn’t use the word cooperation. That was not something we discussed last week nor is it something I’ve been directed to do,” he explained.
Instead, the meeting provided a chance to maintain the lines of communication between the American and Russian militaries open to minimize misunderstandings between the two nations.
“The importance of this is the military-to-military communications channel between the [chiefs of defense] is a useful thing to have,” Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, the Joint Staff’s director of strategic plans and policy, said last week. “We see that as useful, regardless of the state of our relationship with Russia. It is always useful to talk mil-to-mil. It avoids miscalculation; it promotes transparency when we have forces operating in close proximity to each other, as we do in Syria.”
At the Brookings Institute, Gen. Dunford mentioned that the recent incidents involving Russian warplanes flying close to U.S. Navy destroyers are “unacceptable.”
“We do have what we call incidents at sea and air meetings with the Russians every year,” explained the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, adding that he has “reemphasized” the need for ongoing dialogue on the issue “to be robust.”
At the next meeting with the Russians, Gen. Dunford vowed to “ensure that there’s professional and safe conduct both in the air and the sea.”