Anyone home? Ukraine isn't taking the Pentagon's calls

by Reuters
Thursday, 20 February 2014 22:20 GMT

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON, Feb 20 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has been unable to get anyone on the phone at Ukraine's defense ministry over the past several days as violence flared and Kiev named a new head of the armed forces general staff, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

"We haven't been able to connect with anybody from the Defense Ministry there in Ukraine," spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby told a Pentagon news briefing.

"Here in the Pentagon, we've been trying to (connect with them) pretty diligently this whole week."

Kirby said he was also unaware of any successful military-to-military contacts between United States and Ukraine, and acknowledged it is usually not so difficult for Hagel to get a foreign counterpart on the phone. Hagel and the Ukrainian defense minister spoke in December, Kirby noted.

"I'd say it's pretty unusual," he said.

The Pentagon has been warning the Ukrainian military to stay out of the country's political crisis, calls echoed by President Barack Obama on Wednesday.

Kirby said reports from U.S. embassy personnel in Kiev indicate that, so far, Ukraine's military is not involved in clashes between security forces and anti-government protesters.

Instead, the Ukrainian armed forces were being used to protect military facilities, including weapons and ammunition storage facilities, Kirby said, renewing U.S. calls to keep them out of the mix.

"(Hagel) urges the Ukrainian armed forces to continue to refrain from participating in the conflict, a conflict that can and should be resolved politically," Kirby said.

Ukraine's health ministry said 75 people had been killed since Tuesday afternoon, including during three hours of fierce fighting in Independence Square in Kiev on Thursday.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich appointed a new head of the armed forces general staff on Wednesday. His presidential decree gave no explanation for the change in personnel, nor for the timing.

Kirby said there was no active planning by the Pentagon for a potential evacuation of U.S. citizens from the Ukraine, should the situation deteriorate further. But he also noted that the head of the U.S. military's European Command had resources available, if needed.

"But is he actively putting pen to paper on evacuation plans for Ukraine? No," Kirby said. (Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Alistair Bell and Jonathan Oatis)

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