Thousands of U.S. troops will be deployed to Germany, Romania and Poland in reaction to the Russian build up of troops near Ukraine, the Defense Department announced Wednesday.
Among them will be 1,000 members of a Germany-based mechanized infantry unit, joining 900 troops already deployed to Romania for a training mission, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
Another 2,000, including members of an 82nd Airborne Division brigade combat team and a headquarters element from the XVIII Airborne Corps, both based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, will head to Germany and Poland.
“I want to be very clear about something. These are not permanent moves,” Kirby said. “They are designed to respond to the current security environment. Moreover, these forces are not going to fight in Ukraine. They’re going to ensure the robust defense of our NATO allies.”
Kirby did not rule out, however, that 82nd Airborne troops could be tasked with securing a non-combatant evacuation in Ukraine, as its 1st Brigade Combat Team did in August at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan.
“As I think you’ve heard the secretary say on Friday, our troops are multi-mission capable and they will be prepared for a range of contingencies,and I won’t go any further than that,” he said.
These troops are in addition to 8,500 stateside troops put on heightened alert last week, Kirby said. The majority of those would be deployed in support of the NATO Response Force, if it is activated.
“There have been additional forces put on prepare to deploy orders or shorten tethers,” he added. “I’m not prepared to go into great detail today about that, but yes, there have been additional ones.”
And while additional troops are heading to these initial three countries now, it’s possible that they and others already in Europe could move around in the coming days.
“There could be other movements inside Europe, intra-theater moves that we would speak to we’re not ruling that out,” Kirby. “We’re also not ruling out the possibility that additional forces from the United States could deploy to Europe.”
The military moves come amid stalled talks with Russia over its military buildup at Ukraine’s borders. And they underscore growing fears across Europe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is poised to invade Ukraine. Smaller NATO countries on the alliance’s eastern flank worry they could be next, although Russia has said it has no intention of initiating conflict and is willing to continue diplomatic efforts.
The administration official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military moves not yet announced.
Biden had said recently that he intended to provide additional U.S. forces to NATO allies in Eastern Europe as reassurance of an American commitment as treaty allies.
The Pentagon also has put about 8,500 U.S.-based troops on higher alert for possible deployment to Europe as additional reassurance to allies, and officials have indicated the possibility that additional units could be placed on higher alert soon. The U.S. already has between 75,000 and 80,000 troops in Europe as permanently stationed forces and as part of regular rotations in place such as Poland.
Washington and Moscow have been at loggerheads over Ukraine, with little sign of a diplomatic path forward. A Spanish newspaper on Wednesday reported that the United States could be willing to enter into an agreement with Russia to ease tensions over missile deployments in Europe if Moscow steps back from the brink in Ukraine.
The daily El Pais published two documents purported to be written replies from the United States and NATO last week to Russia’s proposals for a new security arrangement in Europe. The U.S. State department declined to comment on them.
In reference to the second document, NATO said that it never comments on “alleged leaks.” But the text closely reflects statements made to the media last week by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as he laid out the 30-nation military organization’s position on Russia’s demands.
The U.S. document, marked as a confidential “non-paper,” said that the United States would be willing to discuss in consultation with its NATO partners “a transparency mechanism to confirm the absences of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and Poland.”
That would happen on condition that Russia “offers reciprocal transparency measures on two ground-launched missiles bases of our choosing in Russia.”
Aegis Ashore is a system for defending against short- or intermediate-range missiles. Russia argues the site in Romania could be easily adapted to fire cruise missiles instead of interceptors, which ram their target and do not carry warheads, a claim that Washington has denied.
Russian President Vladimir Putin again mentioned the possibility Tuesday, saying that “there are MK-41 launchers there that could be configured for firing Tomahawks.” He said they “are offensive systems that could reach thousands of kilometers into our territory. Isn’t that a threat to us?”
The U.S. document said Washington would have to consult with NATO allies on the potential offer, particularly with Romania and Poland.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the leaked documents, saying only that “we didn’t release anything.” In comments to the state RIA Novosti news agency, Russia’s Foreign Ministry also refused to confirm or deny that the documents published by El Pais were authentic.
Fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine have mounted in recent months, after Putin deployed more than 100,000 troops to areas near Ukraine’s borders, including in neighboring Belarus, backed by tanks, artillery, helicopters and warplanes. Russian officials have insisted that Moscow has no intention of invading.
The U.S. underlined after its written proposals in the leaked document that “progress can only be achieved on these issues in an environment of de-escalation with respect to Russia’s threatening actions towards Ukraine.”
In his first public remarks on the standoff in more than a month, Putin on Tuesday accused the U.S. and its allies of ignoring Russia’s central security demands but he said that Moscow is willing to talk more to ease tensions over Ukraine.
His remarks suggested that a potential Russian invasion may not be imminent and that at least one more round of diplomacy is likely.
After talks in Kyiv Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte underlined that “it is essential for dialogue to continue.” If not, Rutte, said, “it is clear that further aggression against Ukraine will have serious consequences.”
Russia’s military buildup has already taken a toll on Ukraine’s economy, but Zelenskyy said his government has taken steps to calm the markets and the local currency, the hryvnia. He said Ukraine has also boosted its combat and armed forces capabilities, but underlined that “we think only about peace and de-occupation of (our) territories, solely through diplomatic means.”
Notable in its absence from the leaked documents is any mention of Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO. Putin has demanded that NATO stop taking in any new members and withdraw its troops and equipment from countries that joined the alliance since 1997, almost half its ranks.
In the leaked document linked to NATO, the 30 allies said they “reaffirm our commitment to NATO’s Open Door policy,” without specifically mentioning Ukraine. Under Article 10 of NATO’s founding treaty, other European countries may be invited in if they further the goals of European security.
At a NATO summit in 2008, NATO leaders said that they welcomed “Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO,” adding: “We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”
Russia invaded Georgia later that year, and in 2014 annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Around 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict that still simmers in eastern Ukraine. Their membership plans have been on hold for years, although NATO continues to support them and promote reforms.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.