In a flexing of U.S. military muscle, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday dispatched six F-15 aircraft to patrol the skies over Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania as the Ukraine crisis entered its fifth day.
The move more than doubles American warplanes’ presence in the NATO mission to protect the three Baltic nations, once part of the former Soviet Union. Hagel said the action was taken at the request of the three countries.
Hagel also boosted U.S. training flights with the Polish military in a separate move intended to signal American resolve in the face of the recent Russian aggression.
The United States currently provides four F-15s to fulfill its part in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission, in which warplanes from 14 of the Western military alliance’s member nations take turns patrolling the skies over the former Soviet republics.
Through April, the United States will add six additional fighter jets to the mix, according to a defense official who requested anonymity in order to provide details of the beefed-up mission.
Pentagon officials are consulting with their Polish counterparts about increasing U.S. training flights there. Ten U.S. Air Force officers and other personnel now help train Polish military aviators in F-16 and C-130 aircraft.
Meanwhile, during a trip by President Barack Obama to Connecticut, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the United States is pursuing actions on its own and in concert with allies. Carney said the Ukrainian government must make sure the rights of ethnic Russians there are protected, but U.S. officials have seen no evidence that they have been violated.
Even with the show of military force, Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were on Capitol Hill to advocate caution and push a resolution that would avoid more direct military action.
“I urge continued restraint in the days ahead in order to preserve room for a diplomatic solution,” Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., cited the Ukraine conflict as one of the threats facing the U.S. military during a hearing on the $600.6 billion Pentagon budget that Obama sent Congress on Tuesday.
In the face of criticism from Hagel and Dempsey over defense funding cuts since 2011, Levin said lawmakers must determine “whether the resources that we are providing to the Department of Defense are adequate to enable our military to meet its national security missions.”
Hagel said he was in contact with his NATO counterparts and with the defense ministers of Russia and the fledgling Ukrainian government.
“The events of the past week underscore the need for America’s continued global engagement and leadership,” Hagel told the panel.
The Pentagon chief said Obama’s defense budget “reflects that reality” and “helps sustain our commitments and our leadership at a very defining moment.”
Hagel said he was part of a broad administration effort to provide economic aid to the new Ukrainian government and step up cooperation with European allies.
“This is a time for wise and steady and firm leadership,” he said. “And it’s a time for all of us to stand with the Ukrainian people in support of their territorial integrity and their sovereignty. And we are doing that.”
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the committee, disagreed.
“Events across the Middle East, Africa and most recently in Ukraine have brought into sharp focus a reality that President Obama seems unwilling to accept _ the tide of war is not receding,” Inhofe said. “Instead, U.S. national security is being challenged in ways that I haven’t seen in all of my years serving in Washington.”
In Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry, a day after visiting the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, said he and the foreign ministers from France and Britain had held separate meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia.
“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters.
In Washington, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, mixed pledges of bipartisan support for Obama on the Ukraine crisis with claims that his energy policies are aiding Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“America has a responsibility to stand up for freedom around the globe,” Boehner said on the House floor. “And the House will work with the administration to support the Ukrainian people and confront Russian aggression.”
But the speaker said the Energy Department “is sitting on 24 applications for natural gas exports” to allies in Europe and elsewhere that could ease dependence on Russian supplies through pipelines that go through Ukraine.
“This amounts to a de facto ban that only emboldens Vladimir Putin, allowing him to sell large quantities of natural gas to our allies,” Boehner said.
Boehner said the House could vote this week on “a bailout package” of U.S. aid for the pro-Western Ukrainian government that took power last week after months of protests.
Carney said that Obama spoke with British Prime Minister David Cameron about the crisis and both leaders “expressed their grave concern over Russia’s clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and both noted that the current circumstances are unacceptable. Russia has already started to pay a cost for its actions, such as reducing investor confidence.”
The European Commission, the executive agency of the European Union, agreed Wednesday to give the Ukraine government $4.1 billion in aid and loans over the next several years.
“The events of the last days have shocked us all and reminded us that principles that we cherish, like peace, cannot be taken for granted,” said Jose Manuel Barroso, the commission president.
Hannah Allam of the Washington Bureau contributed.
By James Rosen
McClatchy Washington Bureau