Pentagon deploys 8,500 troops on ‘heightened alert’ as US weighs military action against Russia

The United States is discussing the deployment of US military forces in Eastern Europe with its NATO allies, a senior administration official said Monday, as President Joe Biden weighs options for responding to Russian threats against Ukraine.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has placed 8,500 troops on “heightened alert” to help defend NATO allies, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a news conference Monday. He said no placement orders have been issued.

“I want to emphasize that from now on the decision has been made to put these units on higher and only higher alertness,” Kirby said. “No decisions have been made at this time to deploy troops from the United States.”

With Moscow rallying more than 100,000 troops on its neighbors’ borders and with no diplomatic breakthrough in sight, the West is ramping up its response amid mounting fears that an invasion is imminent.

Talks are underway with NATO countries that could receive US military forces as part of a plan to deter the aggression of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the official said.

NATO said Monday it would send ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe and that Washington “has also made clear that it is considering increasing its military presence in the eastern part of the Alliance”.

Biden took part in a roughly 90-minute video conference with European leaders Monday afternoon to discuss Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, the White House said. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Polish President Andrzej Duda, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and other leaders joined the call.

After the video conference, Biden told reporters it was a “very, very, very good meeting”, adding that there was “total unanimity with all European leaders”. The president said he would have more to say on the matter later.

In a statement, the White House said Biden and European leaders “reiterated their continued concern about Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders and expressed support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The White House said the leaders “underlined their shared desire for a diplomatic solution” and also “discussed their concerted efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has asked the White House to brief all members of the House on the situation, a source familiar with the matter said. A separate source said Senate Majority Leader Schumer, DN.Y., has requested a secret briefing for all senators next week.

Biden was briefed on Saturday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin of US options for responding if Russia invades Ukraine, as well as options for US military movements ahead of an invasion, according to a defense official and senior government official.

Options presented to the US military ahead of an invasion included bomber flights over the region, visits to ships in the Black Sea, and moving troops and some equipment from other parts of Europe to Poland, Romania and other neighboring countries of Ukraine.

Austin presented options to reassure NATO allies and bolster their defenses, especially the defenses of the countries bordering Ukraine, the officials said. The aim is to demonstrate unity and strength within NATO and deter Russian aggression against allies in the region, the officials said.

Biden was at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, and Austin briefed him via secure video conference call. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, was on the phone. In general, the secretary briefs the president and then the president provides more operational details.

Some details of the briefing were previously reported by The New York Times.

Russia has repeatedly denied planning to invade and has blamed the West for fueling tensions.

“All this is not happening because of what we, Russia, are doing. This is happening because of what NATO and the US are doing,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said during a conference call with reporters on Monday.

While Biden weighed his options, the State Department ordered relatives of embassy staff in Kiev to leave on Sunday and authorized non-emergency diplomatic staff in Ukraine to leave. It also warned Americans not to travel to Ukraine or Russia, citing the possibility of Russian military action.

Ukraine criticized the move to withdraw diplomats’ families as ‘premature’, while US allies were divided on whether or not to follow America’s lead immediately, with the UK doing but the European Union saying it wouldn’t do it for now.

Voluntary military units of the Ukrainian Armed Forces train in a city park in Kiev. Efrem Lukatsky / AP

The briefing for Biden included the latest information that the Russian military has not stopped building troops around Ukraine, the officials said.

Another defense official said Putin continues to add more military units and pour troops into the border areas around Ukraine. “He’s getting stronger, literally every day,” the defense official said.

The officials would not say whether Biden approved of any moves. The senior government official did say some troops and assets could be moved “in the coming days”.

Air Force General Tod Wolters, the commander of US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe, has been preparing options for weeks, the defense official and senior government official said. Wolters has the authority to move some troops around his theater, but he will keep Austin and military leaders informed given the gravity of the situation, officials said.

Meanwhile, NATO said early Monday it was putting additional troops on standby and sending more ships and fighter jets to the region, including bolstering its “deterrent” presence in the Baltic Sea.

“NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all Allies, including by strengthening the eastern part of the Alliance. We will always respond to any deterioration in our security environment, including by strengthening our collective defenses,” Stoltenberg said.

Russian naval vessels on Monday began exercises in the Baltic Sea targeting sea defense and anti-aircraft defenses, Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti reported, according to Reuters.

The US military and NATO will also begin Exercise Neptune Strike ’22 on Monday, which will include training with NATO allies for capabilities that can be used against Russia. As part of the exercise, the aircraft carrier group USS Harry S. Truman will provide long-range and anti-submarine warfare training from the Mediterranean Sea.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the exercise “is designed to demonstrate NATO’s ability to integrate the high-quality naval strike capabilities of an attack group of aircraft carriers to support the deterrence and defense of the Alliance.”

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