WASHINGTON, April 29 (Xinhua) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has stepped up consultations with Eastern European allies on the Ukraine situation amid Russia's activities along its border, a Pentagon spokesman said on Tuesday.
Hagel met with Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser at the Pentagon on Tuesday morning, and he will meet with Czech Defense Minister Martin Stropnicky later in the day, U.S. Defense Department's Press Secretary John Kirby said.
The Estonian leader "thanked the secretary for the United States response for events in Ukraine, including sending soldiers to Estonia for bilateral training and exercises," Kirby said at a news conference.
Hagel told Mikser that the United States will look for other ways to maintain a U.S. presence in the region, Kirby said, adding that the two men spoke about two upcoming exercises, which will involve the participation of a dozen NATO nations.
"What we're looking at trying to do is ways in which we can make these preset exercises more robust, using additional assets that are already in Europe, perhaps more aircraft, maybe more ships," Kirby said.
"No decisions have been made yet, but the secretary expressed to the Estonian minister this morning that he's interested in ways we can make those two exercises more robust than they already are. And they're already pretty good-sized NATO exercises," he said.
The United States has sent jets to Poland, and to the Baltic Air Policing effort. It has also sent company sized units to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to exercise with those nations as response to tensions in Ukraine.
Moscow has accused the United States and NATO of staging" unprecedented" military activity near its borders. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, in a phone call with Hagel, said the Western military activity had been growing substantially, and was "accompanied by provocative statements."
Kirby shed more light on Hagel's Monday phone call with Shoigu.
The spokesman described the 45-minute conversation as substantive, noting that the Russian defense chief said twice Russian forces would not cross the border into Ukraine.
To date, there has been no indication that large numbers of Russian troops have stepped away from the border, as indicated by Shoigu, Kirby said.
Tensions are continuing unabated in eastern Ukraine, where pro- Russia militants are engaged in conflicts with government troops and detained eight military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Slovyansk, Ukraine, Friday before freeing one of them Sunday. Mayor Gennady Kernes of Kharkiv, also in Ukraine, was shot and seriously wounded Monday.
The White House on Monday announced fresh sanctions against Russia, targeting seven government officials and 17 companies linked to the inner circle of President Vladimir Putin.
The European Union is also expected to move against Russia as the leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations and the bloc issued a joint statement Friday saying they had agreed to " move swiftly" to impose more sanctions on Russia in response to its inaction in helping to ease growing tension in eastern Ukraine.