Defense Secretary Austin Heads to Europe as Putin Readies Ukraine Invasion Force

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U.S. troops of the 82nd Airborne Division recently deployed to Poland
U.S. troops of the 82nd Airborne Division recently deployed to Poland because of the Russia-Ukraine tensions are setting up camp at a military airport in Mielec, southeastern Poland, on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Beata Zawrzel)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Europe on Tuesday for meetings with NATO leaders as Russia added more military forces around Ukraine's border for an invasion that is expected any day.

Austin will first meet with NATO defense ministers in Belgium, and then travel to Poland on the alliance's eastern flank, where he will meet with that country's president and visit with deployed U.S. forces at an air base, chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said during a press conference Monday. The secretary will also go to Lithuania to meet with the prime minister and defense minister, and U.S. troops there.

The trip comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues training exercises and preparation of more than 100,000 troops encircling Ukraine, including the addition of more logistics and sustainment forces that could enable a long siege.

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"He is doing all the things you would expect him to do to make sure he's ready for that option," Kirby said.

Over the weekend, the U.S pulled 160 Florida National Guard soldiers out of Ukraine. The troops were assigned to the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and were part of a previously planned training mission with Ukrainian forces. U.S. Embassy staff in the capital Kyiv were also ordered to evacuate.

Austin's visit to Brussels is partly meant to underscore the U.S. commitment to NATO's Article 5, which calls for collective defense if any member is attacked, on what could be the eve of the largest military action in Europe since World War II. NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

In Poland, he will go to Powidz air base, which is west of the capital Warsaw, to meet with U.S. and Polish troops. The centrally located Polish base is a hub for U.S. Army forces that rotate into the country for joint operations and exercises.

    A joint meeting is also planned between Austin and the defense leaders of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, three NATO members that border Russia who have been among the most anxious about Moscow aggression in recent years. Two of the three also share a border with Russia's close ally Belarus, where Putin has positioned thousands of troops in recent months.

    "[Austin will] have a chance as well to visit with some U.S. service members that are there in Lithuania," Kirby said. The U.S. started rotational deployment of about 500 troops to that country in 2019.

    Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky warned Monday that Russia would invade on Wednesday, but Kirby said the Pentagon has no indication that Putin has made a final decision. Russia has denied it is planning an invasion, even as it has spent nearly a year massing forces.

    Moscow has fueled an insurgency in eastern Ukraine for years following its annexation of Crimea in 2014. During the current invasion crisis, Russia has demanded that Ukraine never be allowed to join NATO and that the alliance pull back from eastern Europe.

    President Joe Biden has said the U.S. military will not deploy into Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO, and is instead prepared to protect alliance members. On Friday, he ordered an additional 3,000 soldiers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to go to NATO member Poland after sending 1,700 earlier this month. A Stryker squadron from Germany is moving to Romania, which is also a member of the alliance.

    -- Travis Tritten can be reached at travis.tritten@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.

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