President Joe Biden is sending about 2,000 U.S.-based troops to Poland and Germany and shifting roughly 1,000 soldiers from Germany to Romania as demonstrations of American commitments to NATO allies amid fears of a possible Russian military invasion of Ukraine, the Pentagon said Feb. 2.
In announcing the moves, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said they will happen in the coming days and operate under U.S. command.
“These are not permanent moves,” he said, stressing that the purpose is to reassure allies at a time of heightened tension over Russia’s unusual buildup of military forces along Ukraine’s border.
“These troops are not going to fight in Ukraine,” Kirby said, referring to the soldiers being sent from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Germany and Poland, and those being shifted from Germany to Romania. The 1,000 going to Romania are members of a cavalry unit and are in addition to about 900 U.S. troops already in that country, Kirby said.
“It’s important that we send a strong signal to Mr. Putin and to the world” of the U.S commitment to NATO, Kirby said.
Biden has said he will not put American troops in Ukraine to fight any Russian incursion, although the United States is supplying Ukraine with weapons to defend itself and seeking to reassure allies in Eastern Europe that Washington will fulfill its treaty obligation to defend them in the event they are attacked.
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.
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 to 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 places such as Poland.
Washington and Moscow have been at loggerheads over Ukraine, with little sign of a diplomatic path forward. A Spanish newspaper on Feb. 2 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 Feb. 1, 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 Feb. 1 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 on Feb . 2 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.