Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel uses the internal communication systems Thursday as he addresses the crew of the USS Vella Gulf during his tour in Constanta, Romania. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)
CONSTANTA, ROMANIA — Against the backdrop of bristling tensions with Russia, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited the U.S. Navy cruiser Vella Gulf in port in Romania Thursday, underscoring the U.S. military's commitment to security in the nervous region.
The fourth, and the most deadly, U.S. warship to do a rotation in the Black Sea since Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, the Vella Gulf has been making port calls and conducting exercises as part of a new, more visible and consistent presence in the waters.
Hagel made it clear, in comments to reporters after leaving the ship, that the near-continuous Navy presence that began in March will continue.
"We will sustain this tempo going forward," he said as he stood alongside Romanian Defense Minister Mircea Dusa. "We are also stepping up our cooperation with other partners and allies surrounding the Black Sea - including Bulgaria, Georgia, Turkey, and Ukraine."
He said President Barack Obama's recent decision to seek up to $1 billion from Congress to beef up the U.S. military presence in Europe will provide more troop rotations for exercises and training and "a stronger presence of U.S. ships in the Black Sea."
Dusa said that the ongoing U.S. ship presence increases the area's sense of security in the wake of Russia's actions.
Security cooperation between the U.S. and Romania has delivered two critical agreements, including the recent move to use the Black Sea air base of Mihail Kogalniceanu as a transport hub as American troops move in and out of Afghanistan. The Romania base is critical because the U.S. is no longer able to use the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan.
Romania also has agreed to host SM-3 interceptor missiles and radar as part of the broader European missile defense system. It is under construction and expected to be operational in 2015.
Russia has strongly opposed the plans, while U.S. and its allies have stressed that the system is not aimed at Moscow but is largely developed as a defense against Iranian missile attacks.
While on the Vella Gulf, Hagel had lunch with sailors and reviewed the ship's high-tech ballistic missile defense systems.
Speaking over the intercom to sailors on the ship, Hagel said they were doing an essential and defining mission "at a troubling time in this region in the world."
The ship has been in the Black Sea for nearly two weeks and arrived in Romania Tuesday. International law limits the time any U.S. warship can stay in the Black Sea to 21 days.
Hagel's visit to Romania is his fifth stop on a 12-day, around-the-world trip that will next take him to France for the D-Day commemoration.
Ukraine has been on his agenda for much of the trip, including three days in Brussels for meeting of NATO defense ministers.
The trip comes as U.S. and allies are trying to determine what to do about Russia's aggressive actions in Ukraine, including the positioning of as many as 40,000 troops along its border. Most of those troops have left under international pressure.