Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel uses the internal communications system of the USS Vella Gulf to address crew members on June 5, 2014.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel uses the internal communications system of the USS Vella Gulf to address crew members on June 5, 2014. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Hagel Visits U.S. Warship in Black Sea at ‘Troubling Time’

Defense Secretary Hagel continues to flex American muscle at Russia, bringing the spotlight eastward to the USS Vella Gulf. By Kevin Baron

ABOARD THE USS VELLA GULF – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited a U.S. guided-missile warship in the Black Sea on Thursday in a high-level show of support for NATO’s Eastern European flank, just down the shore from the Russian invasion of Crimea.

Hagel flew from NATO headquarters to Romania to tour the Aegis-missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf, the fourth American warship sent to the Black Sea after Russia stunned the alliance and walked into the Ukraine uncontested. Since then, Hagel and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Phil Breedlove have executed a “near continuous” presence of U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea, which is a dramatic increase above routine visits made by American ships historically. 

“We will sustain this tempo going forward," Hagel said, standing alongside Romania’s defense minister, to whom he gave U.S. assurances of support.

The USS Vella Gulf entered the sea on May 23 and pulled into Constantza, Romania, on Tuesday. With 122 missiles, torpedoes and two Seahawks, she only has a short time left in the sea.

“We’re grateful for what you’re doing at a very important time in the world, in particular this mission that you’re on – where you are today as we partner with the Romanians, our NATO allies, at a troubling time in this region in the world, is really defining.

“It’s not meant to be provocative,” said a senior U.S. defense official. “We’re not steaming up and down the beaches waving our flag.”

But the ship is clearly here for a reason. “It is critically important for NATO, all the European nations, to recognize this very real threat and challenge to their security. We have responded to that, I think, very effectively,” Hagel said, in an interview with the BBC’s Katty Kay in Romania.

“These measures are a proof of allied solidarity,” said Romanian Defense Minister Mircea Dusa. Dusa said Romania would increase its defense spending to 2 percent of its GDP, meeting NATO’s minimum requirement. “It is clear to us all that NATO must rethink its capabilities so that they match the current security environment.”

Beyond the U.S. naval presence, President Barack Obama this week announced he wants $1 billion for troop rotations and increased assistance to Eastern European states and called on NATO states to up their own defense spending.

Obama is in Europe this week with robust warnings for Russia. He was in Brussels for the G-7 meeting, met with newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and arrived in Paris on Thursday to join other world leaders in Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. 

“We are at a point where Mr. Putin has the chance to get back into a lane of international law,” Obama said. “He has a president in Poroshenko who he can negotiate directly with. Having spoken to President Poroshenko this morning, or yesterday morning, it's clear that he recognizes that Ukraine needs to have a good relationship with Russia, but also, rightly, affirms the right of Ukraine to engage with the rest of the world.” 

“And the steps that [British Prime Minister David Cameron] outlined earlier and that the G7 unanimously agrees with, which is for Mr. Putin to seize this moment, recognize Poroshenko is the legitimate leader of Ukraine, cease the support of separatists and the flow of arms, work with Ukraine to engage those in the east during this process of constitutional and economic reform -- if Mr. Putin takes those steps, then it is possible for us to begin to rebuild trust between Russia and its neighbors and Europe.  Should he fail to do so, though, there are going to be additional consequences.” 

In an interview with the BBC, Hagel said the U.S. showed a comprehensive engagement in the Ukraine crises beyond military force. “We continue to asses all the different ways we can help. The Department of Defense had a senior team in Ukraine this week” led by Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet, “working with the minister of defense and his people on how we can continue to help build their capacity - train, cooperate, assist, economic assistance; so there are many channels of assistance that we will provide, are providing, will continue to provide.”