Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday that efforts to thwart the NATO alliance are backfiring and that he would bear responsibility for large-scale suffering in a Ukraine invasion.
Russia's continued buildup of more than 150,000 troops around Ukraine has made the NATO alliance stronger and more united than it's been in decades, said Austin during a press conference at NATO headquarters in Belgium before a planned trip to Poland and Lithuania on the alliance's eastern edge.
"Mr. Putin says that he doesn't want a strong NATO on his Western flank. He's getting exactly that," Austin said, as the alliance warned that Putin could order a full-scale invasion at any moment.
Austin announced that a U.S. Army Stryker company will move into NATO member Bulgaria as part of a joint training agreement struck Thursday. He plans to meet this week with leaders in Poland and Lithuania, which are also NATO members and are hosting thousands of U.S. troops deployed to counter Russian aggression.
The defense secretary flew to Europe to meet with the alliance as the world grappled with the biggest security crisis on the continent in decades.
Tensions again rose on Wednesday as Ukraine reported shelling that hit a school in the eastern Donbass region, where it has been fighting Russian-backed separatist forces for years. The shelling followed reports of cyberattacks within Ukraine.
The U.S and its allies have warned that Russia could use a false flag attack in Donbass to blame Ukraine for hostilities as a pretext for invasion.
Austin said the U.S. and allies are still evaluating the shelling and cyberattacks, as well as disinformation campaigns around the Russian buildup, but the activity is expected as first moves by Putin in any bid to take Ukraine.
"We're beginning to see more and more of that," he said. "We've said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict. So we'll be watching this very closely."
Russian aircraft reportedly buzzed U.S. Navy patrol planes in several incidents in the Mediterranean Ocean over the weekend. The U.S. and NATO just conducted a massive naval exercise there with the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group.
Russia has continued its buildup in recent days as NATO members have become increasingly alarmed. President Joe Biden said Tuesday that Russia had massed more than 150,000 troops around the borders of Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Putin annexed its Crimea peninsula in 2014 despite condemnation from around the world. While sponsoring the separatist conflict in Ukraine, he has spent the past year on the military buildup around its northern, eastern and southern borders, and demanded that NATO never admit Ukraine as a member.
Austin said the Russians have flown more combat and air support missions over the last few days, sharpened its readiness in the Black Sea, and stocked up on supplies of blood.
"You know, I was a soldier myself not that long ago, and I know firsthand that you don't do these sorts of things for no reason. And you certainly don't do them if you're getting ready to pack up and go home," Austin said at the NATO press conference.
The U.S. and its allies have rejected Putin's demands on Ukraine and NATO but continued to leave the door open to diplomacy with Russia, which was expected to respond this week to earlier entreaties to begin dialogue.
But any diplomatic process depends on whether Putin is serious about reaching a resolution, Austin said.
"If he's not, as his deeds thus far tend to indicate, it will be clear to the entire world and he started a war with diplomatic options left on the table," he said. "It will be Mr. Putin who will bear the responsibility for the suffering and the immense sacrifice that ensues."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.