The Pentagon is readying up to 8,500 U.S. troops to potentially deploy to Eastern Europe as Russia ratchets up its aggression towards Ukraine.
“The United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us, our allies, or partners,” press secretary John Kirby told reporters Monday.
In light of that and at the direction of President Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “has placed a range of units in the United States on a heightened preparedness to deploy, which increases our readiness to provide forces if NATO should activate the [NATO Response Force] or if other situations develop.”
“All told, the number of forces that the secretary has placed on heightened alert comes up to about 8,500 personnel,” Kirby said.
The Pentagon’s prepare to deploy orders follow warnings from Western officials that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent as the Kremlin has amassed some 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine.
Moscow has also placed an unidentified number of its forces in Belarus under the claim of war games.
Biden has already threatened high economic costs on Russia if troops cross the border and said that an invasion of Ukraine could result in troops being sent to bolster NATO’s defenses.
The commander-in-chief was set to meet virtually with European leaders on Monday afternoon to discuss the situation, which has grown more dire in recent days and prompted the State Department to reduced staffing at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.
Kirby stressed that there has been no decision made to deploy and there’s no intent to send troops to Ukraine. He said the heightened alert was “about getting troops ready” and reassuring NATO allies.
He noted that the “vast majority” U.S. troops placed on alert would help the NATO Response Force (NRF), a multinational force comprised of around 40,000 land, air, maritime and special operations forces the alliance can deploy on short notice as needed.
Austin also wants to be “postured to be ready for any other contingencies as well,” he added.
“We’re going to be ready, we’re going to be prepared to help bolster our allies with capabilities they might need,” Kirby said. “We’re going to do this in lockstep with them … This is really about reassuring the Eastern flank of NATO.”
The Defense Department on Monday was still notifying military units it would send to Eastern Europe, but they would include “additional brigade combat teams, logistics, medical, aviation, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, transportation and additional capabilities” in the event of “NATO’s activation of the NRF or a deteriorating security environment,” Kirby said.
To add to the sense of urgency, Austin’s order would also speed up military units’ deployment preparation. In some cases, units time to prepare to move would go from 10 days down to five days
Washington earlier this month sent two weapons shipments to Ukraine as part of a lethal aid package approved in December, and NATO countries are also sending ships, fighter jets and weapons to locations in Eastern Europe.
In addition, the European Union has vowed to speed up a financial package for Ukraine worth $1.4 billion.
Russia, meanwhile, has repeatedly denied it is planning an invasion and has accused the West of ratcheting up tensions.
Updated at 4:35 p.m.