The US has placed about 8,500 troops on standby for possible deployment to central and eastern Europe to help shore up Nato’s defences as western leaders gathered to cement a unified response to the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Even as we continue to prioritise diplomacy and dialogue, we must also increase readiness in support of its obligations to the security and defence of Nato and the security of its citizens abroad,” John Kirby, Pentagon spokesperson, said during a briefing on Monday.
“At the direction of the president and following recommendations made by secretary [Lloyd] Austin, the United States has taken steps to heighten the readiness of its forces at home and abroad,” he added. “They are prepared to respond to a range of contingencies, including support to the Nato Response Force, if it is activated.”
No decision had yet been made on whether to deploy the troops, Kirby noted, but they would now be ready within five days instead of 10. The multinational Nato response force, if it was activated, would involve the deployment of up to 40,000 personnel.
The Pentagon’s announcement came just before president Joe Biden held a video conference call from the White House situation room with western leaders to co-ordinate the response to a Russian attack on Ukraine that is feared could be imminent.
Western countries have been discussing a package of economic and financial sanctions to be imposed on Russia as well as military aid to Kyiv and the deployment of troops, aircraft and warships to defend Nato allies in eastern and central Europe.
“We have always said we would reinforce our allies on the eastern flank, and those conversations and discussions have certainly been part of what our national security officials have been discussing with their counterparts now for several weeks,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said.
According the White House, Monday’s call lasted 1 hour and 20 minutes. It was expected to involve Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, Olaf Scholz, German chancellor, Emmanuel Macron, French president, Andrzej Duda, Poland’s prime minister and Mario Draghi, Italian prime minister, as well as EU leaders and the Nato secretary-general.
The virtual meeting of western leaders follows days of escalating warnings that an invasion by Russia could be imminent, including a British alert that Moscow was plotting to install a pro-Kremlin puppet government in Ukraine.
In an ominous statement, Johnson said on Monday that there was evidence of Russian plans “for a lightning war that could take out” the Ukrainian capital, which would be “painful, violent and bloody business” for Moscow. “I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya,” he said.
Britain on Monday ordered a number of its embassy staff and family members to leave Ukraine. The move came after the US on Sunday told family members of its embassy staff to leave Kyiv because of the risk of “significant military action” by Russia.
Despite the growing drumbeat of military conflict, western diplomats have continued to stress that a diplomatic solution is still a possibility. Antony Blinken, secretary of state, said the US would send written responses to Russian demands in the coming days, which could ease tensions and provide the basis for a settlement.