The U.S. military took the first steps Wednesday toward bolstering the defenses of NATO allies in response to the crisis in Ukraine.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered six F-15 Eagle strike fighters and a KC-130 tanker aircraft to go from their base in Lakenheath, England to Lithuania on a mission to guard against violations of airspace over the Baltic states, a defense official said.
The six F-15s will join four others already in Lithuania. The six additional fighters were expected to arrive at Lithuania's Siauliai Air Base later this week, the official said in a statement.
The U.S. was also stepping up joint aviation training and support for Poland, the official said. Currently, 10 Air Force personnel are based in Poland to coordinate rotations of U.S. F-16 fighters and C-130 cargo aircraft with the Polish Air Force.
"This morning the Defense Department is pursuing measures to support our allies," Hagel told a Senate hearing of the moves in Lithuania and Poland.
Putin has charged that Lithuania and Poland set up camps on their territory to train fighters who helped topple Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. Poland and Lithuania have rejected the charges.
At a Senate hearing earlier, Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed diplomacy and a measured economic response in an international effort to roll back Russia's military takeover of Ukraine's Crimea region.
Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he had spoken earlier in the day with his Russian counterpart Gen. Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, to warn against Russian troops moving out from Crimea to other Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine.
"I conveyed to him the degree to which Russia's territorial aggression has been reputed globally," Dempsey said of Gerasimov. "I urged continued restraint in the days ahead in order to preserve room for a diplomatic solution."
Gerasimov took the job as military chief in 2012 following a purge by Putin of the top defense and military leadership on corruption charges.
In concert with European allies, the U.S. was developing options "to deter further Russian aggression," Dempsey said without detailing the options.
Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the NATO commander, has also been in contact with Gerasimov to urge a pullback.
"This is a time for wise, steady, and firm leadership," Hagel said. "And it is 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."
In Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to make little headway in resolving the crisis in talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The U.S. and European allies "agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with Ukraine, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis," Kerry said.
More discussions with Lavrov were scheduled for Thursday in Rome, said Kerry, a day after he was in Kiev to show solidarity with Ukraine.
On Monday, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said that President Obama had phoned him to give assurances "unequivocally as to Poland's security, knowing that Poland is not only a neighbor of Ukraine but Russia as well."
In a statement Wednesday, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite called for more support from the U.S. and NATO in the Baltic states. "NATO visibility in the Baltic states must be increased and defense capabilities must be strengthened," Grybauskaite said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@monster.com.