WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has put 8,500 American troops on “high alert” for possible deployment to Eastern Europe, as NATO and the United States braced for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Pentagon announced on Monday.
Most of the 8,500 troops would take part in a NATO response force that might soon be activated, said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. The remaining personnel would be part of a specific U.S. response to the deepening crisis, Defense Department officials said, most likely to provide assurance to American allies in Eastern Europe who are fearful that Russia’s plans for Ukraine could extend to the Baltics and other countries in NATO’s so-called eastern flank.
“It’s very clear the Russians have no intention right now of de-escalating,” Mr. Kirby said at a news conference on Monday. “What this is about, though, is reassurance to our NATO allies.”
Mr. Kirby’s announcement comes after The New York Times reported on Sunday that President Biden was considering the deployment of several thousand U.S. troops, as well as warships and aircraft, to NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
The moves signal a major pivot for the Biden administration, which until recently was taking a restrained stance on Ukraine, out of fear of provoking Russia. But as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has ramped up his threatening actions toward Ukraine, and talks between American and Russian officials have failed to discourage him, the Biden administration is moving away from its previous strategy.
At the same time, the administration continues to insist that the United States has no intention of going to war with Russia over the issue. Since Ukraine is not in NATO, the alliance is not bound by its treaty to come to Ukraine’s defense. Russia’s massing of more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s border, and NATO’s response, has nonetheless raised the specter of a war that could escalate and widen.