WASHINGTON - In advance of their budget testimony this morning before a Senate panel, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey outlined Defense Department activities pertaining to the crisis in Ukraine.
Hagel and Dempsey appeared before the Senate House Armed Services Committee to discuss the president's fiscal year 2015 budget request for DOD, and Hagel alluded to the Ukraine situation in his statement to the panel.
"I think it's clear ... that the events of the past week underscore the need for America's continued global engagement and leadership," he said. "The president's defense budget reflects that reality."
The DOD budget request is helping the department and the services "navigate through a period of great uncertainty regarding the future level of resources DOD will have to defend the nation," the secretary added.
Addressing the unrest in Ukraine that led to the invasion of Crimea by Russian troops, Hagel said that over the past few days he and Dempsey have been in constant touch with their fellow ministers and chiefs of defense in NATO, Russia and Ukraine.
"Today we are putting together a call for me with the new minister of defense for Ukraine," he said. "Over the last couple of weeks, I have had conversations with the previous two ministers, and General Dempsey spoke this morning with Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu." Hagel also spoke March 1 with Shoygu about the situation in Ukraine.
The secretary attended a NATO defense ministers conference last week in Brussels. While there, he took a few hours to meet with the NATO Ukraine Commission and spent time with Ukraine's acting defense minister, Oleksandr Oliynykof.
"Across the administration, our efforts have been focused on de-escalating crisis, supporting the new Ukrainian government with economic assistance and reaffirming our commitments to allies in Central and Eastern Europe," Hagel said, adding, "I strongly support the administration's approach to this de-escalation."
Secretary of State John F. Kerry was in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev yesterday and is in Paris today, and he is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today. NATO officials met yesterday and will meet again today, the secretary said.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, announced that it is sending 35 observers to Ukraine. The United Nations has had a Security Council meeting, and Hagel said he expects more activities along the diplomatic and economic front.
"Earlier this week, I directed the Department of Defense to suspend all military-to-military engagements and exercises with Russia," he added. These include two scheduled trilateral exercises with the Russians, one with the Canadians and Russians and the other with the Norwegians and Russians.
"Also, this morning the Defense Department is pursuing measures to support our allies, including stepping up joint training through our aviation detachment in Poland ... and augmenting our participation in NATO's air policing mission on the Baltic Peninsula," the secretary said.
At U.S. European Command, Eucom Commander Air Force Gen. Philip M. Breedlove is convening meetings with the Central and Eastern European chiefs of defense, he said.
"I think everyone on this committee knows ... that this is a time for wise and steady and firm leadership, and a time for all of us to stand with the Ukrainian people in support of their territorial integrity and their sovereignty," Hagel said. "That, in particular, is what President [Barack] Obama continues to do as we pursue diplomatic and economic options."
The United States and the OSCE, with the International Monetary Fund, have proposed separate economic packages that for Ukraine are particularly important, the secretary said.
In his remarks, Dempsey acknowledged what he called the alarming progression of events in the Ukraine over the past few days.
"Our senior leaders have made it clear that they wish to see Russia's provocation resolved through diplomatic means in close collaboration and coordination with our allies," the general added.
Over the past several days, Dempsey also has spoken with most of his NATO counterparts, in particular those in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. He said they are concerned and seek U.S. assurance for their security.
"During our conversations, we committed to developing options to provide those assurances and to deter further Russian aggression, [and] we agreed that together we must help shape a path back to sovereignty and security for all the people of the Ukraine," the general said. "Simply put, the allies stand together."
Dempsey recommended suspension of the department's military-to-military exchanges with the Russian Federation and directed Eucom to consult and plan within the construct of the North Atlantic Council. "Obviously, we want to provide NATO's leaders with options that stabilize and not escalate tension in the Ukraine," he said, "but we are only one part of that equation."
This morning, Dempsey said, he spoke with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, urging continued restraint in the days ahead to preserve room for a diplomatic solution.
"Russia's actions remind us that the world today remains unpredictable, complex and quite dangerous," Dempsey said. "We cannot think too narrowly about future security challenges, nor can we be too certain that we have it right. The world will continue to surprise us, often in unpleasant ways."