Russian military leaders repeatedly deny U.S. calls, experts concerned about 'sleepwalking into war'

"There is a high risk of escalation without the firebreak of direct contact between the most senior officials," a former NATO official said.

Updated: March 23, 2022 - 10:59pm

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Top Russian military officials have been ignoring calls from their United States counterparts over the last month, prompting concerns that Russia's invasion of Ukraine may escalate into a larger global conflict.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley have tried to set up phone calls with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month, The Washington Post reported.

The Kremlin military officials "have so far declined to engage," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday, the Post stated.

The reportedly denied calls comes as Russia appears to be conducting operations near the border of Poland and Romania, both NATO members.

"There is a high risk of escalation without the firebreak of direct contact between the most senior officials," former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis told the Post.

"Very young people are flying in jets, operating warships, and conducting combat operations in the Ukrainian war," he said. "They are not seasoned diplomats, and their actions in the heat of operations can be misunderstood."

Russia's use of sophisticated weaponry such as hypersonic missiles in Ukraine as well as rumors about the potential use of biological weapons have underscored the threat of the invasion turning into a larger conflict.

"We must avoid a scenario of NATO and Russia sleepwalking into war because senior leaders can’t pick up a phone and explain to each other what is happening," Stavridis added.

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer pointed to reports denied by the Biden administration that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also ignoring U.S. calls.

"First the Saudis and the UAE leaders won't take Biden's call," Spicer tweeted. "[N]ow Russian military leaders aren't returning our military leader's calls."

The United States and Russia are the world's two largest nuclear superpowers, making the stakes especially high. 

"A nightmare scenario would be a Russian missile or attack aircraft that destroys a U.S. command post across the Polish-Ukrainian border," Stavridis told the Post. "A local commander might respond immediately, thinking the event was a precursor to a wider attack. This could lead to rapid and irreversible escalation, to include potential use of nuclear weapons."