Hagel Steps Up Consultations With Eastern European Allies
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 29, 2014 Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has stepped up his consultations with Eastern European NATO allies in light of Russia’s activities along its border with Ukraine, Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said today.
Hagel met at the Pentagon today with Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser, and this afternoon he will meet with Czech Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky.
The Estonian leader “thanked the secretary for the United States response for events in Ukraine, to include strengthening the NATO Baltic Air Policing rotation and sending soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team to Estonia for bilateral training and exercises,” Kirby said during a news conference.
Hagel told Mikser that the United States will look for other ways to maintain a U.S. presence in the region. The two men spoke about two upcoming exercises – BaltOps and Exercise Saber Strike – as possible vehicles to demonstrate the alliance commitment to the region. Both exercises will have about a dozen NATO nations participating, Kirby said.
The United States has sent jets to Poland, and to the Baltic Air Policing effort. It has also sent company sized units to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to exercise with those nations in what defense officials have called a direct response to Russia’s intervention in neighboring Ukraine. Hagel is committed the defense of NATO allies and has also directed U.S. European Command Commander Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove to consult with allies to update defense plans as the security situation in Europe evolves.
“What we’re looking at trying to do is ways in which we can make these preset exercises more robust, using additional assets that are already in Europe, perhaps more aircraft, maybe more ships,” Kirby said. “No decisions have been made yet, but the secretary expressed to the Estonian minister this morning that he’s interested in ways we can make those two exercises more robust than they already are. And they're already pretty good-sized NATO exercises.”
Kirby said the U.S. military will provide a robust rotational presence in the region through the end of 2014 but no final decisions have been made on what that’s going to look like.
Kirby shed more light on Hagel’s phone call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu yesterday. The 45-minute conversation was described as substantive and the Russian leader said twice that Russian forces would not cross the border into Ukraine.
“Both men had an opportunity to present their views and perspectives and to listen to one another,” Kirby said. “And though it was at times terse, it was never uncivil between the two of them. And both agreed at the end of the call to continue to have those discussions.”
Hagel was very clear with the Russian defense minister that the United States wants a better understanding of Russian intentions and Russian force levels along the border. “The force levels, as they are, are not doing anything to reduce tension in Ukraine -- in fact, quite the opposite -- because they have been there for so long and in such great number that it’s simply making things more tense,” Kirby said.
“Our expectation is that their actions are going to meet their words and their promises,” he added. To date, there has been no indication that large numbers of Russian troops have stepped away from the border, Kirby told reporters.
The admiral also addressed “irregular elements” inside Ukraine fomenting violence. “That’s one of the issues that Secretary Hagel raised with Minister Shoigu yesterday,” he said. “It’s an influence we'd like to see stop.”
These forces are clearly military trained personnel, the admiral said, but Russian leaders say they are not. “I think it’s safe to say that Minister Shoigu held a different view about who those individuals are and who they’re working for,” Kirby said. “But, look, I mean, I grew up in Florida. If it looks like an alligator, it’s an alligator.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneAFPS)