U.S. President Joe Biden is meeting virtually Monday afternoon with key European leaders about the ongoing threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as he weighs sending several thousand U.S. troops to the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
Biden has not decided whether to move U.S. military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in advance of the meeting with the European officials that the U.S. has “always said we’d support allies on the eastern flank” abutting Russia.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed 8,500 U.S. military personnel on “high alert” of being dispatched to Eastern Europe, where most of them could be activated as part of a NATO response force in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies.”
Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion of the onetime Soviet republic but vowed to impose quick and severe economic sanctions on Moscow.
Kirby said the U.S. military is “keenly focused” on the Russian military’s 127,000-troop buildup along the Ukraine border and in Belarus. He said the U.S. is “taking steps to heighten readiness over Ukraine,” including for a NATO response force if the Western military forces are activated.
U.S. and Russian officials have had four face-to-face meetings in the past two weeks over Western concerns about the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russian fears of NATO operations in Eastern Europe, and Biden has also talked directly with European allies.
The White House said Biden would be in the highly secure Situation Room for his Monday call. He is meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Polish President Andrzej Duda and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Earlier Monday, NATO said its members were sending more ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe in response to Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine.
A NATO statement said additional troops and equipment could be sent from several countries, including Denmark, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United States.
“NATO will continue to take all necessary measures to protect and defend all allies, including by reinforcing the eastern part of the alliance,” Stoltenberg said. ”We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense.”
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accused the United States and its NATO allies of escalating tensions.
The United States and Britain also announced orders for their embassy staff and family members in Kyiv to leave Ukraine, citing the potential for Russian military action.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry noted the U.S. move but expressed displeasure.
“While we respect right of foreign nations to ensure safety & security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one & an instance of excessive caution,” spokesperson Oleg Nikolenko tweeted Monday.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Monday the EU was not planning any similar withdrawals. He spoke to reporters as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, which U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to join virtually.
“We are not going to do the same thing, because we don’t know any specific reasons. But Secretary Blinken will inform us,” Borrell said.
In addition to its order Sunday for the departure of eligible family members from the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, the State Department also authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. direct-hire employees, asked U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider departing the country, and reissued travel advisories warning against traveling to either Ukraine or Russia.
Asked about the timing of these actions on Sunday evening in Washington, a senior State Department official told reporters they come against the backdrop of reports that Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine.
The State Department official said security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and could deteriorate with little notice.
The State Department officials who briefed reporters declined to give any estimates of the number of Americans working at the embassy in Kyiv or of the number of Americans living in Ukraine.
Russia denies it plans to invade Ukraine and has sought guarantees against further NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. The U.S. and Russia are planning to exchange written statements this week about their demands of each other.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.