Efrem Lukatsky/AP

Ukraine’s Defense Minister Is Ignoring Hagel’s Calls

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been calling Ukraine’s defense minister for days, but no one’s answering. By Stephanie Gaskell

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been calling his counterpart in Ukraine for days, but no one is answering the phone.

The revelation from the Pentagon is the latest indicator that United States officials are now acutely concerned that Ukraine’s defense and security force leaders may crackdown on Kiev’s deadly protests.

“We haven’t been able to connect with anybody from the defense ministry there in the Ukraine,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said Thursday. “He’s been trying now for the past several days, as the violence escalated, to reach Ministry of Defense.” On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fired the head of the armed forces Col. Gen. Volodymyr Zamana and replaced him with Ukraine’s navy chief, Adm. Yuriy Ilyin, BBC reported. Following that move, President Barack Obama publicly warned Ukraine’s military to “show restraint,” and Gen. Phil Breedlove, NATO supreme allied commander and head of U.S. Europe Command, began posting Tweets and Facebook messages to try and reach Ukrainian military leaders.

“Secretary Hagel has been trying, himself, since early this week,” Kirby said. On Wednesday, Breedlove tweeted a direct plea: “I am calling upon the new military leadership in Ukraine to open a dialog with us to bring this situation to a peaceful resolution.”

The violence in Ukraine began in November as a show of support for the European Union against closer ties with Russia. Kirby said Hagel had spoken to the Ukrainian defense minister back in December. “So this wouldn’t be, like, the first outreach effort,” he said. There have been no indications as to why no one is picking up the phone. “They haven’t taken the call so … we haven’t talked to them,” Kirby said. “So, no -- they haven’t said why.”

“We’ve been trying pretty diligently this whole week,” he said. On Wednesday, Yanukovych announced a truce, but violence has continued and there are no indications that any talks with the opposition have been scheduled.

“The reports we are receiving right now from our embassy personnel in Kiev indicated that the armed forces are being used at this time to protect military facilities, including weapons and ammunition storage facilities. They’re not involved in the violence against protestors. We certainly hope that remains the case,” Kirby said.

Hagel, meanwhile, is “deeply troubled by the violence there and shares the outrage of so many over images of Ukrainian interior ministry forces firing automatic weapons at their own people. He urges the Ukrainian armed forces to continue to refrain from participating in the conflict – a conflict that can and should be resolved politically.”

There are currently two U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea, sent there as a precaution for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in nearby Sochi, Russia. One of those ships, the USS Taylor, has run aground and is unable to respond to any missions. There are currently no plans to replace the Taylor. “I’m not aware of any specifics to change that posture in the Black Sea,” he said. There also have been no requests from the State Department for U.S. military assistance in Ukraine. “But, as I’ve said before, we are a planning organization,” Kirby added. “We have to provide options.”

Kirby said the escalating violence in Ukraine will certainly come up at next week’s NATO Defense Ministerial meeting in Brussels next week. Ukraine is a member of NATO’s “Partnership for Peace” program. “There’s been no change in our military-to-military relationship with Ukraine,” Kirby said.

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