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Biden dispatching additional U.S. troops to Eastern Europe

The deployments of U.S. troops from Germany and Fort Bragg, N.C., are temporary moves intended to reassure NATO allies, the Pentagon said on Feb. 1. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Biden has ordered the deployment of several thousand U.S. military personnel to reinforce NATO allies in Eastern Europe, administration officials said Wednesday, as the United States and its Western partners step up preparations for a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.

About 3,000 U.S. troops are expected to deploy, with some moving from permanent posts in Germany to NATO’s eastern flank in Romania, and others heading from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to establish a new headquarters in Germany and reinforce existing forces in Poland. The deployments are intended to be temporary, said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, but they reflect the deepening alarm over Russia’s positioning of more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine.

“This is not the sum total of the deterrence actions we will take, or those to reassure our allies,” Kirby said, suggesting additional “posture decisions” could be announced “soon.”

Pentagon defends its preparation for Ukraine crisis, details military forces that could deploy

Wednesday’s announcement underscores the challenge Russia’s military buildup has created for Biden and his national security team, who have been forced to strike a delicate balance between reassuring NATO allies seeking a greater U.S. military presence and avoiding any missteps that could inflame a volatile situation.

The deployments coincide with increasingly hostile rhetoric being exchanged between senior U.S. and Russian officials, with Moscow’s ambassador in Washington accusing the Biden administration of “demonizing” Moscow and spreading falsehoods about the Kremlin’s past activity in the region. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that it’s the Russians who are “on an escalatory path,” insisting, “They are the ones who have gathered tens of thousands of troops on the border. They are the ones who are threatening to invade a sovereign country.”

Saying the situation “demands” that the United States reinforce Eastern Europe, Kirby told the Pentagon press corps that an Army Stryker unit comprising about 1,000 soldiers presently based in Germany will be sent into Romania and join some 900 U.S. troops already there. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin discussed the move last week with top Romanian officials, who extended an invitation, Kirby said.

Additionally, about 2,000 U.S. troops from Fort Bragg, including members of the Army’s elite 82nd Airborne Division, will be sent to Poland, Kirby said. Others within that group, including personnel from the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, are expected to establish a new headquarters in Germany that will oversee the operation.

Last week, about 8,500 U.S. troops were put on a heightened alert because of the crisis over Ukraine. They have not yet deployed and are mostly expected to do so if NATO activates for the first time its military response force, which would include troops from multiple countries. Such a deployment would require approval from all NATO members, although the United States or its partners may continue to order their own deployments as agreements are reached with individual countries in Eastern Europe.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that he welcomed the Pentagon’s announcement, calling the move a “powerful signal of U.S. commitment.”

“Our deployments are defensive and proportional and send the clear message that NATO will do whatever is necessary to protect and defend all allies,” Stoltenberg said.

While Biden has ruled out any combat deployment to Ukraine, it remains possible that U.S. troops could be directed to assist in the evacuation of American citizens and diplomats from that country — should such measures become necessary. About 200 members of the Florida National Guard are in Ukraine, where they are providing training to local forces, and could be withdrawn quickly if necessary, Kirby said.

Russia has denied that it intends to invade Ukraine, but its leaders have made clear they consider the presence of Western troops and weapons in the region an unacceptable security threat. The Kremlin has sought assurances that Ukraine and other non-NATO countries once a part of the former Soviet Union will never join the alliance, whose members are bound to defend each other against attack, and called for Western forces to pull back from NATO’s eastern flank.

The United States and its partners have rejected those demands while seeking other compromises.

Biden spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron Wednesday, the White House said. The two leaders discussed coordinating diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, as well as “preparations to impose swift and severe economic costs on Russia should it further invade Ukraine,” according to a White House readout of the call.

Also Wednesday, U.S. officials affirmed the veracity of a document — sent to Russia in December — outlining a U.S. proposal that would allow Russia to inspect missile defense systems in Romania and Poland to verify there are no Tomahawk cruise missiles at those sites. In exchange, the United States had sought similar inspections at two sites in Russia. The document, first published by the Spanish newspaper El País, also warned that if the Russian military moves against Ukraine, it would “force the United States and our Allies to strengthen our defensive posture.”

The communication, Kirby said, “confirms to the entire world what we have always been saying: There is no daylight between our public statements and our private discussions.”

Ukraine’s president criticizes West’s handling of Russia crisis

In the Ukrainian capital, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba downplayed perceived differences between Kyiv and Washington over the likelihood of an imminent military move by Russia. Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seemed to chastise Biden and the Western media for unsettling Ukrainians with pronouncements warning of an impending incursion. Kuleba said the two governments agree that the situation is very dangerous.

“There are no divisions between me and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken, between President Zelensky and President Biden,” Kuleba told reporters. “The tone of our voice may sound different, but the assessment is actually the same: We must prepare for every possible scenario.”

Asked Wednesday about the latest U.S. assessment on the threat posed by Russia, Psaki said the administration has stopped describing an invasion as “imminent.”

“We stopped using it because I think it sent a message that we weren’t intending to send which was that we knew that President Putin had made a decision,” Psaki said. “I would say the vast majority of times I’ve talked about it we said he could invade at any time. That’s true; we still don’t know that he’s made a decision.”

Earlier, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, condemned the White House press secretary’s characterization of Russian President Vladimir Putin as having used chemical weapons and “invaded multiple countries in the past several years.” Antonov contended Moscow had a better record of compliance with international chemical weapons treaties, according to comments posted on the embassy’s Facebook page. He also criticized Washington’s “bloody experiments” to bring democracy to nations like the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Those interventions brought the world “nothing but chaos, instability and loss of lives,” Antonov said. “We encourage our colleagues to look in the mirror more often before blaming or lecturing others.”

Antonov also cited Syria as a country in which the United States attempted to bring democracy, but the United States never launched a military campaign there aimed at ousting Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Russia joined Assad in the Syrian civil war, deploying soldiers and carrying out an air campaign on his behalf, while the United States and coalition partners attacked Islamic State fighters in the country’s northeast.

The latest back-and-forth between Washington and Moscow follows Russia’s assertion that it would be forced into conflict with NATO if Ukraine were to join the Western military alliance and attempt to take back Crimea, which Russia annexed by force in 2014. Speaking Tuesday in Moscow, the Russian leader also accused the United States and NATO of using Ukraine to hem in Russia and ignoring the Kremlin’s security concerns.

For the first time in more than a month on Feb. 1, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed tension with the West over Russian military buildup near Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden is threatening Putin with personal sanctions over Ukraine. What to know about this pressure tactic.

The United States and Britain are considering imposing some of the toughest sanctions yet on Russia and on allies of Putin in an effort to deter a renewed invasion of Ukraine.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s chief spokesman, said Wednesday that Moscow was ready to defend itself against a threat to sever Russia’s biggest banks from dollar-dominated international financial networks.

“We have contingency plans, risk-hedging plans and plans to minimize consequences of the unpredictable steps,” Peskov told reporters.

Peskov also said there were no plans at present for further talks between Putin and Biden.

“It is always good when the presidents talk to each other. It always gives a good impetus to bilateral relations, but they do so when they deem it necessary,” Peskov said.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, suggested he would use that body to highlight the Minsk agreements as a political solution to the Ukraine crisis.

The accords, which are viewed as generally favorable to Moscow, were brokered by Berlin and Paris after the Russian annexation of Crimea. The Kremlin has charged the West with failing to push Ukraine to implement the 2015 accord that called for a measure of autonomy in Ukraine’s rebel-held east and an amnesty for Russian-backed insurgents there.

The peace deal was widely condemned by Ukrainians, and officials in Kyiv have warned that implementing it now would destabilize the country. The deal also called on Russia to end its interference in the region and withdraw troops from the Ukrainian border.

Hendrix reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Pannett from Sydney. Robyn Dixon in Moscow, and William Branigin, John Hudson, Karen DeYoung and Chitra Wadhwani in Washington, contributed to this report.