President Biden said Friday he plans to send a small number of U.S. forces to Eastern Europe in the “near term” amid growing fears of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“I’ll be moving troops to Eastern Europe in the NATO countries in the near term,” Biden told reporters at Joint Base Andrews upon returning from a trip to Pittsburgh. “Not too many.”
The Pentagon has put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for potential deployment to NATO countries in Eastern Europe,nand Biden’s comments seemed to signal definitively that at least some of those forces would deploy soon. Most of the troops are expected to join a NATO rapid response force in Eastern Europe.
Biden’s comments are the latest sign that the White House believes a Russian invasion to be a strong possibility in the near future. Administration officials have said for more than a week a Russian invasion could be imminent, though U.S. officials have not judged that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made up his mind on invading Ukraine.
“We don’t believe that President Putin has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters earlier Friday. “He clearly now has that capability.”
Ukraine has disagreed, however, arguing that an invasion is not imminent and taking issue with the heightened rhetoric of U.S. officials and the decision by the State Department earlier this week to urge Americans and family members of embassy officials to leave Ukraine.
Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday during and stressed that the U.S. and European allies would “respond decisively” in the event of an invasion. Biden also said there was a “distinct possibility” Russia could invade Ukraine in February, according to the White House.
Russia has staged more than 100,000 troops at the Ukrainian border and recently conducted military drills in Belarus.
The Biden administration has threatened punishing economic sanctions should Russia choose to launch a renewed invasion of Ukraine. Biden and other officials have engaged in a flurry of talks with European partners in recent weeks to convey unity on a fierce response to a Russian incursion.
At the same time, Biden administration officials have offered a diplomatic alternative to Russia should it pull back troops from the border. The State Department sent a response to Russian demands of NATO earlier this week, to which the Russians reacted coolly.
The U.S. has asked the U.N. Security Council to hold a meeting on Russian aggression towards Ukraine on Monday, in an effort to escalate pressure on Moscow.
Briefing reporters alongside Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley warned of “horrific” consequences if Russia invades Ukraine as both defense officials urged Putin to take the diplomatic route.
“Given the type of forces that are arrayed, the ground maneuver forces, the artillery, the ballistic missiles, the air forces, all of it packaged together. If that was unleashed on Ukraine, it would be significant, very significant, and it would result in a significant amount of casualties,” Milley said. “You can you imagine what that might look like in dense urban areas, all along roads, and so on and so forth.”
Updated at 6:56 p.m.