Hagel takes backseat on Ukraine

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is taking a backseat to other players in the Obama administration when it comes to the crisis in Ukraine. 

His low-key role is likely deliberate, as President Obama has made clear he is not interested in getting into an armed conflict with Russia over its territorial incursions.

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With Obama putting the emphasis on diplomacy and punitive sanctions, Secretary of State John Kerry has taken the lead on calling on Russia to deescalate tensions and abide by an agreement he helped broker last week. 

The diplomatic outreach has also fallen to Vice President Biden, who traveled to Ukraine this week to meet with officials and announce more U.S. assistance for the government in Kiev.

Critics of the administration say Hagel's low-key role is a reflection of the administration's unwillingness to provoke or challenge Russia militarily.  

"Chuck Hagel hasn’t taken a back seat; he’s in the trunk, bound and gagged," said Danielle Pletka, vice-president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

"The administration knows they made a huge mistake when they forced him through Congress, and he’s been told to hush up, read from script when instructed and otherwise stay out of everything," Pletka said. 

Defense officials agree that administration is putting diplomacy first, and have made clear from the beginning that there is no military solution to the Ukraine crisis.

One of the first steps taken by the administration as Russia moved into Crimea was to suspend the U.S. military relationship with Russia.  

"Hagel's in charge of defense. When you're in charge of the military and the focus of the effort is diplomacy then it's reasonable for the secretary of State to be the most prominent voice," said a military official on background. 

Despite Obama’s vow to avoid a war over Ukraine, the Pentagon has still had to make moves in order to reassure Europe of its commitment to their security.

The Pentagon this week announced it was sending about 600 U.S. soldiers to Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, countries north of Ukraine that also border Russia.

Last week Hagel met with his Polish counterpart and announced that the U.S. was providing Ukrainian forces with more non-lethal military aid. 

The Pentagon has also sent ships to the Black Sea, additional fighter jets to the region, and sent 300,000 Meals-Ready-to-Eat in late March.

Defense officials say Hagel has been an integral part of the administration’s response to Russia’s aggression.

"Secretary Hagel has played a crucial role in managing the options available to the president to reinforce our allies in NATO and our partners in Europe," a U.S. official said on background. 

"Hagel has been a very steady hand and a very strong leader. He's managing it very well," said the military official.

Nonetheless, Hagel has stayed silent in the face of recent provocative military moves by Russia. 

When a Russian fighter jet buzzed a U.S. Navy ship in the Black Sea last week and ignored the ship's attempts to communicate with it before heading back, Hagel did not discuss the matter with his counterpart, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

And on Thursday, Shoigu announced that Russian forces were conducting new military exercises along the Ukraine border. On that day, Hagel was in Mexico City meeting with Canadian and Mexican officials at a North American Defense Ministry meeting.  

Hagel had instructed his staff to reach out to his Russian counterpart to set up a phone call, but it was Kerry that warned Russia that there would be consequences.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials on Friday said "thousands" of Russian troops could be seen leaving their temporary bases, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, airborne assault units. They also confirmed to the Associated Press that Russian jets had also flown into Ukrainian airspace a handful of times within the last 24 hours. 

Pletka said the diminished role of Hagel on Ukraine shows the administration's indifference to foreign policy.  

"What does that say about this administration? They don’t care about foreign policy, never have. And the state of the world is a testament to the president’s complete indifference," she said.