US President Joe Biden is meeting virtually Monday afternoon with key European leaders over the lingering threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine as he plans to send several thousand US troops to the Baltics and Europe from the east.
Biden has not decided to move US military equipment and personnel closer to Russia. But White House press secretary Jen Psaki said ahead of the meeting with European officials that the United States had “always said we would support allies on the eastern flank” alongside Russia.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has placed 8,500 US military personnel on “high alert” before being sent 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 that the Russians have no intention of defusing at this time,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “What it’s all about, though, is reassuring our NATO allies.”
Biden has ruled out sending troops to Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion of the former Soviet republic, but pledged to impose swift and tough economic sanctions on Moscow.
Kirby said the US military was “very focused” on reinforcing the 127,000 Russian army troops along the Ukrainian border and in Belarus. He said the United States was “taking steps to strengthen Ukraine’s readiness,” including for a NATO response force if Western military forces were activated.
US 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. East, and Biden has also spoken directly with European allies.
The White House said Biden will be in the highly secure Situation Room for his Monday call. He meets 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 on 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 strengthening the eastern part of the alliance,” Stoltenberg said. “We will always respond to any deterioration in our security environment, including by strengthening our collective defence.”
Kremlin spokesman 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. decision, but expressed displeasure.
“While we respect the right of foreign nations to ensure the safety and security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step is premature and an example of excessive caution,” spokesman Oleg Nikolenko tweeted on Monday.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said on Monday that the EU was not planning any similar withdrawal. He spoke to reporters as he arrived for a meeting of EU foreign ministers, which US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to attend virtually.
“We’re not going to do the same, because we don’t know of any specific reason. But Secretary Blinken will let us know,” Borrell said.
In addition to its order on 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. directly hired employees, U.S. Citizens asked in Ukraine to consider leaving the country and has reissued travel advisories. warning against travel to Ukraine or Russia.
Asked about the timing of those actions on Sunday night in Washington, a senior State Department official told reporters they came amid reports that Russia was planning major military action against Ukraine.
The State Department official said security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russian-occupied Crimea and in Russian-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and could deteriorate without notice.
State Department officials who briefed reporters declined to give estimates of the number of Americans working at the Kiev embassy or the number of Americans living in Ukraine.
Russia denies plans to invade Ukraine and has asked for guarantees against further NATO expansion into Eastern Europe. The United States and Russia plan to exchange written statements on their mutual demands this week.
Some information for this report comes from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.