U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel cautioned the Kremlin against making a “miscalculation” in maneuvering ground and air forces near the border with Ukraine, which is still without a full-time government after the toppling of its pro-Russian president.
Joined by NATO allies, Hagel issued the warning after Interfax reported that Russia put fighter jets on alert, stepping up a military drill announced yesterday. Adding to tensions, the parliament of the southern Ukrainian region of Crimea was seized by armed backers of union with Russia.
“I expect Russia to be transparent about these activities, and I urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted, or lead to miscalculation during a very delicate time,” Hagel told reporters after North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers met Ukraine’s deputy defense minister in Brussels.
As Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk labored to put a government together, Ukrainian officials also warned Russia not to move troops from Black Sea bases in Crimea that the Kremlin operates under a leasing arrangement.
Hagel said the U.S. is in contact with Russian officials at several levels to get more details about the military exercises and he will speak to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu “in the next day or so.”
Hagel also warned against jumping to conclusions about today’s occupation of the Crimean parliament in the city of Simferopol by gunmen who hoisted the Russian flag and demanded the reunification of the region with Russia, to which it belonged until 1954.
It’s not yet clear “what’s really happened there, who’s in charge,” Hagel said. “Let’s keep the tensions down, let’s see no provocative actions by anyone, any military. This is a time for very cool, wise leadership, on Russia’s side, on everybody’s side.”
Ukraine, a country of 45 million, has been in a loose partnership with NATO since Russian President Vladimir Putin blunted a membership bid in 2008. NATO arranged today’s meeting with Oleksandr Oliynyk, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, after last week’s ouster of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
Ukraine hasn’t requested any assistance from the Western alliance, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. NATO said it hasn’t detected anything sinister about the Russian military drills.
“We have no information indicating that Russia has any plans to intervene militarily,” Rasmussen said.