The Pentagon on Friday called on Russia to stand down on Ukraine as tensions rise over the threat of a Russian military invasion.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a briefing with reporters said Moscow has for months been deploying forces along Ukraine’s border at a “consistent and steady pace,” which has been supported by Russian naval activity in the northern Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea.
“We don’t believe that President Putin has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine,” Austin said. “He clearly now has that capability.”
Austin said conflict was not inevitable, adding that there was still time for diplomacy. He said the U.S. remains in “lockstep” with its NATO allies and has “offered Russia a path away from crisis and toward greater security
“There’s no reason that this situation has to devolve into conflict,” Austin said. “[Putin] He can choose to deescalate, he can order his troops away. He can choose dialogue and diplomacy.”
“Whatever he decides, the United States will stand with our allies and partners,” he continued.
Russia has amassed at least 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, and the U.S. has warned in recent weeks that Putin could attack at any moment. President Biden has warned Putin that such an attack would be met with severe economic consequences for Moscow.
The Kremlin has denied any intention of seeking to invade Ukraine, but weeks of diplomatic dialogue aimed at diffusing the conflict has largely proven unsuccessful. As diplomatic talks continue, NATO has moved to bolster its security forces along the eastern flank, as Ukraine shares borders with four alliance members.
Austin on Monday put up to 8,500 troops on heightened preparedness, the vast majority of them being ready to deploy if NATO activates the NATO Response Force—a multinational force made up of around 40,000 land, air, maritime and special operations forces that can be deployed on short notice.
Biden has been clear that no American troops will be sent directly into Ukraine, something that Austin re-iterated on Friday.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that there’s no intention of deploying U.S. troops as part of an offensive against Russia.
“We haven’t deployed anybody. We haven’t moved anybody yet. We’re just increasing our readiness levels,” Milley said. “We certainly have no intent whatsoever that I’m aware of putting offensive forces to attack Russia and I don’t think that’s NATO’s intent at all.”
Still, both men stressed that Ukraine had the right to be an independent nation, and that there was no reason for armed conflict.
“It’s the policy of the United States government to continue to support an independent Ukraine and their goals. And we are continuing our efforts to enhance their ability to protect themselves,” Milley said.
“We strongly encourage Russia to stand down and to pursue a resolution through diplomacy,” he continued. “Armed force should always be the last resort. Success here is through dialogue.”
This story was updated at 2:22 p.m.