U.S. puts 8,500 troops on heightened alert amid Russia tension

US puts 8,500 troops on heightened alert amid Russia tension
File photo of U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo credit DoD/Chad J. McNeeley

At President Biden's direction, the Pentagon is putting about 8,500 U.S.-based troops on heightened alert for potential deployment to Europe amid rising fears of a possible Russian military move on Ukraine.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Monday no final decisions had been made on deployments, which he said would happen only if the NATO alliance decides to activate a rapid-response force “or if other situations develop” in connection with tensions over Russia's military buildup along Ukraine's borders.

Podcast Episode
Eye on Veterans
War By Other Means: A General in the Trump White House
Listen Now
Now Playing
Now Playing

“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.

“We’ve always said we would reinforce our allies on the eastern flank, and those conversations and discussions have certainly been part of what our national security officials have been discussing with their counterparts now for several weeks,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Biden held an 80-minute video call with several European leaders on the Russian military buildup and potential responses to an invasion.

“I had a very, very, very good meeting -- total unanimity with all the European leaders," Biden told reporters at the White House. "We’ll talk about it later.”

The White House said the leaders emphasized their desire for a diplomatic solution to the crisis but also discussed efforts to deter further Russian aggression, “including preparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions as well as to reinforce security on NATO’s eastern flank.”

Kirby said Austin was anticipating the potential for NATO to activate what it calls the NATO Response Force, a multinational force totaling about 40,000 troops. Most of the 8,500 U.S. troops being put on higher alert would be sent as part of that response force, if it's activated, Kirby said. He added that he could not rule out that U.S. troops already based in Europe could be shifted east as further reinforcements.

As an example of the effect of Austin's order to make U.S.-based units more prepared for deployment, Kirby said that those currently required to be ready to move on 10-days notice will be required to be ready on 5-days notice.

The Pentagon's move comes as tensions have soared between Russia and the West over concerns that Moscow is planning to invade Ukraine, with NATO outlining potential troop and ship deployments, Britain saying it would withdraw some diplomats from Kyiv, and Ireland denouncing upcoming Russian war games off its coast.

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.

Prior to the U.S. announcement, the Western alliance’s statement summed up moves already described by member countries, but restating them under the NATO banner appeared aimed at showing resolve. The West is ramping up its rhetoric in the information war that has accompanied the Ukraine standoff.

Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, demanding that NATO promise it will never allow Ukraine to join and that other actions, such as stationing alliance troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed. Some of these, like any pledge to permanently bar Ukraine, are nonstarters for NATO — creating a deadlock that many fear can only end in war.

Russia denies it is planning an invasion, and says the Western accusations are merely a cover for NATO’s own planned provocations. Recent days have seen high-stakes diplomacy that failed to reach any breakthrough and maneuvering on both sides.

NATO said Monday it is bolstering its “deterrence” in the Baltic Sea region. Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying 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. The Netherlands also plans to send two F-35 fighter aircraft to Bulgaria from April.

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. 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.”