US Secretary of Defense Hagel in Romania; announces stronger Black Sea naval presence

The United States will continue to send warships to the Black Sea to bolster its allies in the area, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said in Romania. Hagel also justified the Taliban-Bergdahl exchange.

Secretary of Defense Hagel said Thursday that a plan by Washington to increase military support for eastern European NATO members will allow for a "stronger presence of US ships in the Black Sea."

US President Barack Obama promised the increase of military support while in Poland earlier this week. It includes a $1 billion (736.2 million euros) fund to support and train the armed forces of NATO states.

Hagel made the remarks from the Romanian port of Constanta where he met with Romanian Defense Minister Mircea Dusa.

Constanta recently hosted US ships on naval exercises and the USS Vella Gulf is currently berthed there.

USS Vella Gulf, a guided missile cruiser, is the fourth US warship deployed in the Black Sea since the Ukrainian crisis erupted in March.

"We will sustain that tempo going forward," Hagel told reporters, referring to the rotating presence of US ships in the Black Sea since the Crimea crisis erupted.

The plan is also to include more US troop rotations for exercises and training in the Black Sea region.

Romania nervous over Moldova future

Bucharest has openly called for an increased US military presence in the Black Sea, and is particularly concerned about Russian intentions in its tiny neighbor Moldova, which used to be part of Romania and contains a Russian-speaking minority.

Since the Ukraine crisis erupted, Romania has also pledged to increase its defense spending. That announcement drew praise from Washington, which has urged other NATO members to follow suit and review how their militaries are trained.

Formerly a communist state, Romania is now a member of both NATO and the European Union. Bucharest has been among the staunchest supporters of Western sanctions against Russia, which has hosted joint military exercises with US forces.

Hagel's tour coincides with a visit by President Obama to Poland this week, to mark the 25th anniversary of Poland's first democratic elections under communism. President Obama also used the visit to Poland to throw his weight behind the new president of Ukraine, amid an intensifying crackdown by Ukrainian forces against pro-Russian rebels.

Bergdahl prisoner swap decision “unanimous”

While in Romania, Hagel also said the decision to strike a deal with the Taliban for the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl was unanimous in the White House as it was believed that the soldier's life was "in peril.”

Bergdahl was handed over to US special operations forces in Afghanistan on Saturday after five years in captivity. He was exchanged for five senior Taliban members from Guantanamo prison.

Hagel told the BBC in Romania on Thursday that the Obama administration had to act quickly and without first consulting Congress which is supposed to be given 30 days notice before transferring detainees from Guantanamo.

"It was our judgment based on the information that we had that his life, his health were in peril," Hagel said.

crh/hc (Reuters, AFP, AP)