People hold posters and chant slogans during a Pro-Russian rally in Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration took steps Wednesday to support the defenses of U.S. allies in Europe in response to Russia's takeover of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the U.S. was stepping up joint aviation training with Polish forces. The Pentagon also is increasing American participation in NATO's air policing mission in its Baltic countries, he said.
In his remarks, Hagel focused on U.S. diplomatic and aid efforts since Moscow's incursion into Ukrainian territory. He said he'd speak later Wednesday with Ukraine's new defense minister; Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey spoke to his Russian counterpart earlier in the day. Neither Hagel nor Dempsey mentioned military options.
"I urge continued restraint in the days ahead in order to preserve room for a diplomatic solution," Dempsey told the Senate panel.
While the hearing was supposed to focus on the military's budget, both witnesses quickly addressed the ongoing events in Ukraine.
Since last weekend, Russian troops have taken control of much of the peninsula in the Black Sea, where Russian speakers are in the majority. Moscow doesn't recognize the Ukrainian leadership that came to power after protesters ousted the country's pro-Russian president last month. It has cited strategic interests as well as the protection of ethnic Russians in making its case for intervention.
Hagel said the U.S. was reaffirming its commitment to allies in Central and Eastern Europe, some of whom spent decades in the last century under Soviet domination. European countries are grappling with their own response to the crisis, fearful about moves reminiscent of Russia's Cold War policy of regional hegemony but equally concerned about damaging trade and energy partnerships vital to their economies.
Details on the new U.S. security efforts weren't immediately available.
The United States assumed control over NATO's air policing duties over Baltic countries Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in January. Belgium previously had the four-month rotating duty. The mission "not only protects the integrity of NATO airspace, it illustrates the alliance's core function of collective defense," the 28-nation bloc said in a statement at the time.
Regarding Ukraine specifically, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked if the Pentagon would provide Ukraine with arms support in the hypothetical event of a larger Russian invasion of the country.
Such a decision would be for President Barack Obama to make, Hagel responded. He said efforts now center on ensuring Russian troops return to their barracks in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet has a lease until 2042, and allowing Ukraine's new government to prepare for elections in two months' time.
"This needs to be de-escalated, where the tensions are down, the troops go back to their base, the new government is allowed to govern," Hagel said.
Also Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee introduced a resolution condemning Russia's actions in Ukraine and calls on the Obama administration to impose "visa, financial, trade and other sanctions" on Russian government officials, state-owned banks and companies. The resolution will be addressed by the committee Thursday.
Meanwhile, a separate House bill circulated Wednesday to pay for loan guarantees to be extended to Ukraine.