US, Russia defense chiefs speak as tensions rise over Crimea attack

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. and Russian defense chiefs spoke by telephone on Tuesday in rare communication between the two powers and with tensions rising after Moscow blamed Washington for a deadly Ukraine attack over the weekend on the Russian-annexed Crimea.

The two sides gave widely divergent accounts of the conversation - the first one between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Russia's new Defense Minister Andrei Belousov, who replaced Sergei Shoigu in May.

The Pentagon said Austin and Belousov discussed the importance of open lines of communication.

Austin initiated the conversation and it was the first such call since March 2023, Pentagon spokesperson Air Force Major General Patrick Ryder told reporters.

Russia's Defense Ministry, however, said that Belousov warned Austin of the dangers of continued U.S. arms supplies to Ukraine in the 28-month-old war.

"A.R. Belousov pointed to the danger of further escalating the situation through continued supplies of American weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces," the ministry statement said on the Telegram messaging app after the call.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have plunged to their lowest level since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Diplomatic contacts between President Vladimir Putin's government and President Joe Biden's administration are now at "an absolute minimum," Moscow said last week.

Over the weekend, Russia said the United States was directly responsible for a Ukrainian attack on the Crimean peninsula with five U.S.-supplied missiles that killed four people.

The Pentagon said earlier this week that Ukraine makes its own targeting decisions.

Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and views it as an integral part of its territory, although most of the world condemned the annexation and sees the Black Sea peninsula as part of Ukraine.

Supplies of U.S. weapons to Ukraine resumed in April with Congressional approval of a $61 billion aid package. The U.S. says it stands by Ukraine's demands for Russian troops to leave and for Ukraine's post-Soviet borders to be restored.

On Tuesday, Moscow's arms control point man, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, warned that if the West underestimated Moscow's resolve, it could lead to "tragic and fatal" consequences because the U.S. and its allies were confronting a major nuclear power - Russia.

In a 2023 call with Russia's Shoigu, Austin had pointed to risky behavior by Russian fighter pilots that caused a U.S. drone to crash in the Black Sea near Ukraine.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali, Ron Popeski and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Stephen Coates and Himani Sarkar)