Dealing with Ukraine

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered Gen. Philip Breedlove, US European Command boss and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, to cancel planned appearances before congressional committees this week and head back to Europe where NATO ministers gathered in Brussels to discuss the evolving situation in Ukraine, reported Stars and Stripes. An estimated 40,000 Russian troops are arrayed along the border with Ukraine. On March 31, US officials were optimistic about reports that Russia had pulled back a battalion of troops (between 500 and 700) massed on the border for “exercises” in the aftermath of the Russian takeover of Crimea, reported Voice of America. State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf said any reductions would be a “welcome preliminary step.” However, by Tuesday, it was less clear if the reductions had taken place. “I cannot confirm that Russia is withdrawing its troops,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen prior to a meeting of the NATO foreign ministers in Brussels early Tuesday. “This is not what we’re seeing,” he said, adding the “massive military buildup can in no way contribute to a de-escalation of the situation.” A joint NATO air defense drill also kicked off on Tuesday in Lithuania. Air Force F-15C fighters, which are currently deployed as part of NATO’s Baltic air policing mission, are participating, along with other aircraft. (NATO release) (Harf transcript) (AFPS report by Claudette Roulo)