WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Black Sea littoral states this week to reassure allies and partners as Russia flexes its military might in the strategic region.
Austin will visit Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania before attending the NATO Defense Ministerial meeting in Brussels on October 21-22.
Romania is a member of the U.S.-led Western military alliance, while Georgia and Ukraine seek to join NATO, something the Kremlin has described as a redline.
"We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression," the Defense Department’s news agency cited a senior official as saying on October 17.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has expressed growing concern about Russia’s intentions in the Black Sea region following the Kremlin’s military buildup near its border and in the annexed region of Crimea earlier this year.
During a visit to the White House in September, Zelenskiy pressed the United States to give it more military support, including helping it rebuild its naval forces.
Ukraine lost most of its navy when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
The West has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation or its claim to Crimea’s territorial waters, resulting in close naval encounters near the peninsula.
Russian troops also occupy about 20 percent of Georgia following a brief war in 2008.