With a Russian ship sailing in very close proximity to the primary east coast submarine base, and tensions between the US - and perhaps the Trump administration - and Russia, once again rising it seems like an odd moment to organize a meeting between the top US military general and his Russian counterpart on Thursday in Azerbaijan, the first such meeting between the two since military cooperation between the two nations was suspended in 2014 following the hostilities in Ukraine.
U.S. Marine Corps General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford will meet with the head of the Russian army's General Staff Valery Gerasimov on Thursday in Azerbaijan, Dunford's office said in a statement on Wednesday.
"The military leaders will discuss a variety of issues including the current state of U.S.-Russian military relations and the importance of consistent and clear military-to-military communication to prevent miscalculation and potential crises," the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said.
Accompanying Dunfort will be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who will also meet his Russian counterpart on Thursday, as the Trump administration evaluates the future direction of US-Russian relations.
Tillerson departed Wednesday for a G-20 ministerial meeting in Bonn, Germany, his inaugural international trip as the United States' top diplomat. He'll be joined in Bonn by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and representatives from the world's other major economies.
The Russian Foreign Ministry announced Wednesday that Tillerson and Lavrov will meet on the sidelines of the conference on Thursday. It will be their first such meeting since Tillerson took office. Tillerson's trip comes as the Trump administration is seeking to reassure skittish allies in Europe the US has their backs, all while exploring new areas for cooperation with Russia as advocated by President Donald Trump.
At the same time, European diplomats are watching the new US officials all the more closely after Trump's disparagement of NATO and questions about the utility of sanctions. Similarly, Western military officials are closely following Defense Secretary James Mattis' participation in the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels and Munich Security Conference this week as well. As CNN adds, it remains to be seen whether the Cabinet secretaries will outline any specific shifts in US positions both on European issues as well as the Middle East.
It's still unclear exactly how the new administration will go about changing course in Syria, and whether doing so will involve additional cooperation with Russia -- which provides military support to the Assad regime.
As Tillerson's plane was taking off in Washington, the Pentagon announced the meeting between Dunford and his Russian counterpart Valeriy Gerasimov, set to take place tomorrow in Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, in a sign that Trump's pro-Russia stance is moderating, the president's envoys have been expressing positions more keeping with previous US policies. While the Trump administration's response to the recent violence in Ukraine has, so far, been muted, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, indicated the US would maintain sanctions on Russia for annexing Crimea in 2014. She condemned what she called the "Russian occupation" of the Ukrainian territory, giving some reassurance to US allies in the region. The sentiment was echoed by Sean Spicer yesterday who said Trump hopes Russia will "return" Crimea to Ukraine.
The Russian Embassy in Washington made it clear this would not happen in a tweet Tuesday afternoon: "We will continue to patiently explain to the new US administration why Crimea is Russia."