- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Pentagon will begin shipping non-lethal military aid to support Ukraine and extend until the end of the year the deployment of fighter jets providing security to Poland since the height of Russia’s aggressive efforts to annex the Crimea peninsula.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday said the United States will begin shipping helmets, sleeping bags, generators and additional non-lethal military aid while officials mull over whether to provide additional support to the country.

Mr. Hagel made the announcements Thursday during a joint press briefing with Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak. The defense secretary also said the dozen F-16 jets that flew to Poland in March will stay in the country until Dec. 31.

The Pentagon plan to keep a fleet of fighter jets on standby in Poland is a step up from the U.S. military’s annual aviation rotation, Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said. Normally, the Pentagon sends a squadron of airplanes, either C-130 transport aircraft or or F-16 jets, to Poland on a quarterly basis, Ms. Lainez said.

Poland is taking precautionary measures in response to recent Russian claims that it its concerned about the Russian minority living along its borders.

“We want to watch our interests and we are making a significant effort to modernize our armed forces,” Mr. Siemoniak said.

Reuters reported in mid-March that Russia expressed concern over Estonia’s language policy, which could spark segregation. That logic is similar to that which Russia used to justify its decision to annex Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, according to Reuters.

Mr. Siemoniak’s visit to the Pentagon comes as NATO ally Poland is preparing to take over NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission.

On May 1, the U.S. military will hand over the reins of an ongoing air-policing operation that protects the airspace over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, to Poland. Numerous allies have offered to augment that mission with aircraft equipped with specialized radars and more than a dozen international fighter jets. Lt. Col. Jay Janzen, a spokesman for NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, said Wednesday that the mission will consist of 12 aircraft flying out of two locations in Eastern Europe: Šiauliai, Lithuania and Ämari Air Base in Estonia.

Normally, the mission consists of four aircraft that fly solely out of Lithuania, Lt. Col. Jay Janzen said. At the request of NATO’s Baltic allies, the Pentagon decided to augment that mission with extra F-15 fighter jets and another 65 airmen, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said.

Meanwhile, NATO is preparing to send one of its standing maritime forces to the Baltic Sea to enhance security in the region as part of an expanding NATO military contingent. That force is currently assembling in Kiel, Germany, according to NATO officials.

NATO officials announced that the fleet will consist of Royal Norwegian Navy support vessel HNoMS Valkyrien, the Royal Netherlands Navy minehunter HNLMS Makkum, a Belgian naval component known as the minehunter BNS Belis, the Royal Norwegian Navy minesweeper HNoMS Otra and an Estonian Navy minehunter known as the ENS Admiral Cowen.

There is also another set of ships moving toward the Mediterranean, departing from somewhere near the coast of Scotland, a NATO official told The Times.

At the maritime operation level, the North Atlantic Council has agreed to have one Standing NATO Mine Counter-Measures Group operating in the Mediterranean and another in the Baltic Sea, the official said.

There also exists the possibility of redirecting a third group of NATO ships to the Mediterranean to exhibit additional military muscle, according to the official.

Four international ships are conducting counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean and could be re-tasked if there is an escalation in tension in the Eastern European region, the official said. The official declined to speculate what circumstances might prompt NATO to issue those orders.

• Maggie Ybarra can be reached at mybarra@washingtontimes.com.

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