Hagel Urges Russia: Avoid Provocations in Ukraine

U.S. carefully follows Russia's activities, officials say, but lacks a contingency plan in case Russian forces are mobilized in Crimea.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel urged Russia on Thursday not to take any action on Ukraine that might boost tensions or be subject to misinterpretation.

On Wednesday the Russia military announced large-scale military exercises near Ukraine's borders. On Thursday, unidentified armed men occupied a government building in Crimea.

The defense secretary said the United States strongly supports Ukraine's territorial integrity and is closely monitoring the Russian maneuvers. He said the Obama administration expects all nations to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and to avoid provocations.

"These are times for cool, wise leadership on Russia's side and everyone's side," Hagel told reporters in Brussels after a NATO defense ministers meeting. He said there are concerns that Russia could act in a way that would lead to miscalculation during a "delicate time" in Ukraine.

"Until we know more details, what really happened, who's in charge, the focus should be on let's keep the tensions down, let's see no provocative actions by anyone, any military," Hagel said.

Hagel said his staff was trying to set up a phone call for him with his counterpart in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in the next day or two, and that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also would be speaking to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

"We have other connecting points, and we're talking with the Russians through other government-to- government channels," Hagel added.

He and other NATO ministers met earlier Thursday with Ukrainian officials. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Russian authorities had informed the U.S. alliance of the military exercises, and "made it clear" they have nothing to do with Ukraine, whose pro-Moscow president has fled to Russia and been replaced by a leadership friendlier to the West.

"Having said that, obviously it doesn't make things easier that there is a coincidence between the timing of this exercise and the ongoing events in Ukraine," Rasmussen said.

Meanwhile, NATO's top military commander played down tension with Russia over Ukraine on Thursday, saying the Western military alliance had made no plans to respond to any Russian intervention in Crimea and appealing for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered 150,000 troops on Wednesday to be ready for war games near the border of the former Soviet republic once ruled from Moscow after pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was toppled by protests over his rejection of closer ties with the European Union.

In addition, an armed group seized government buildings in Ukraine's ethnic Russian-majority region of Crimea on Thursday and raised the Russian flag.

"There just isn't any reason for us and Russia to compete over the future of Ukraine. I think that we both want the same thing which is a prosperous, stable, peaceful Ukraine," U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove said in an interview with Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

"What we need to do now is just, in a calm way, work this out so that we understand what Russia is doing and how that affects other people in the region," said Breedlove, who is NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander of U.S. forces in Europe.

Asked if he was concerned about the possibility of a Russian military intervention in Crimea, Breedlove said: "I think everybody might be concerned about that but right now that is not my primary concern."

The occupation of the buildings in Simferopol, Crimea was "a troubling situation", Breedlove said, adding: "We, like all the nations of NATO, want to see a peaceful resolution to all of the turmoil in Ukraine."

Breedlove said neither the United States nor the 28-nation Western alliance had drawn up contingency plans for how to respond if Russian forces did move militarily in Crimea.

Russia harboring fugitive president

Moscow was reported earlier Thursday to have agreed to grant Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych protection "from the extremists". Yanukovych fled his country's capital after being impaeched by parliament. According to Fox news, he is expected to hold a news conference in southern Russia.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, speaks with troops at the Al Udeid air base in Qatar, December 10, 2014.Credit: AP

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