Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he and his NATO counterparts are “closely watching Russian military operations along the Ukrainian border.” Speaking to reporters Thursday in Brussels following two days of defense ministerial meetings there, Hagel said Russia must be “transparent” in its efforts, adding no one should take steps that could be misinterpreted. “Until we know more details in what’s really happened there, who’s in charge, the focus should be on keeping the tensions down. We don’t want to see any provocative actions by any military,” said Hagel. Russia put fighter jets on alert Thursday, just one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered 150,000 troops to stand ready for war games along the Ukrainian border, reported Reuters. The surprise move comes as tensions rise in Ukraine’s southern Crimea region. Hagel said he and his staff are working to set up a telephone call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the “next day or two.” He noted that Secretary of State John Kerry also is planning to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The White House issued a statement Feb. 26 calling on “outside actors in the region to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty,” while also noting that an “inclusive, broad-based government committed to reconciliation and economic reform is the necessary foundation for international assistance.” NATO defense ministers also issued a statement the same day, saying they will continue to “engage with Ukraine and assist with the implementation of reforms” through the NATO-Ukraine Commission. (Hagel transcript)
The U.S. supports “a stronger and more capable” European defense, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said during an Oct. 22 press conference in Brussels—but that defense should not duplicate the functions and capabilities of the NATO alliance.