U.S. Orders 8,500 Troops on Heightened Alert Amid Russia Worry

WASHINGTON (AP) —
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, Monday. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Pentagon ordered 8,500 troops on higher alert to potentially deploy to Europe as part of a NATO “response force” amid growing concern that Russia could soon make a military move on Ukraine. President Joe Biden consulted with key European leaders, underscoring U.S. solidarity with allies there.

Putting the U.S.-based troops on heightened alert for Europe on Monday suggested diminishing hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin will back away from what Biden himself has said looks like a threat to invade neighboring Ukraine.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said about 8,500 U.S.-based troops are being put on alert for possible deployment — not to Ukraine but to NATO territory in Eastern Europe as part of an alliance force meant to signal a unified commitment to deter any wider Putin aggression.

Russia denies it is planning an invasion.

Biden has sought to strike a balance between actions meant to deter Putin and those that might provide the Russian leader with an opening to use the huge force he has assembled at Ukraine’s border.

The State Department has ordered the families of all American personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv to leave the country, and it said that nonessential embassy staff could leave at U.S. government expense.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, said that U.S. decision was “a premature step” and a sign of “excessive caution.” He said Russia was sowing panic among Ukrainians and foreigners in order to destabilize Ukraine.

Britain said it, too, was withdrawing some diplomats and dependents from its Kyiv Embassy. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said an invasion was not inevitable but “the intelligence is pretty gloomy.”

Ordering even a modest number of American troops to be ready for potential deployment to Europe is meant to demonstrate U.S. resolve to support its NATO allies, particularly those in Eastern Europe who feel threatened by Russia and worry that Putin could put them in his crosshairs.

“What this is about is reassurance to our NATO allies,” Kirby told a Pentagon news conference, adding that no troops are intended for deployment to Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance but has been assured by Washington of continued U.S. political support and arms supplies.

The Pentagon’s move, which was done at Biden’s direction and on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recommendation, is being made in tandem with actions by other NATO member governments to bolster a defensive presence in Eastern European nations.

Denmark, for example, is sending a frigate and F-16 warplanes to Lithuania; Spain is sending four fighter jets to Bulgaria and three ships to the Black Sea to join NATO naval forces, and France stands ready to send troops to Romania.

In a statement prior to Kirby’s announcement, NATO said the Netherlands plans to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria in April and is putting a ship and land-based units on standby for NATO’s Response Force.

NATO has not made a decision to activate the Response Force, which consists of about 40,000 troops from multiple nations. That force was enhanced in 2014 — the year Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula and intervened in support of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine — by creating a “spearhead force” of about 20,000 troops on extra-high alert within the larger Response Force.

If NATO does decide to activate the Response Force, the United States will contribute a range of military units, Kirby said.

“It is a NATO call to make,” Kirby said. “For our part, we wanted to make sure that we were ready in case that call should come. And that means making sure that units that would contribute to it are as ready as they can be on as short a notice as possible.”

He said some units will be ordered to be ready to deploy on as little as five days’ notice.

Among the 8,500 troops, an unspecified number could be sent to Europe for purposes other than supporting the NATO Response Force, he said. Without providing details, he said they might be deployed “if other situations develop.”

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