‘We have a sacred obligation’: Biden threatens to send troops to Eastern Europe
Updated: 01/25/2022 04:59 PM EST
President Joe Biden on Tuesday said he told Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States would deploy thousands of troops to Eastern Europe if Russia continues its military buildup along Ukraine’s border or mounts a renewed invasion of the country.
But the American president also said he would not send troops into Ukraine, even as the White House warned that Russia was likely to move its forces across the border at any moment.
Speaking during a previously unannounced stop at a gift shop in Washington, D.C., Biden told reporters that the roughly 8,500 troops put on high alert to potentially deploy to Eastern Europe “are part of a NATO operation, not a sole U.S. operation.”
“I made it clear to President Putin that we have a sacred obligation, Article 5 obligation to our NATO allies. And that if, in fact, he continued to build up and/or was to move, we would be reinforcing those troops,” Biden said.
“I’ve spoken with every one of our NATO allies … and we’re all on the same page,” he added. “We’ve got to make it clear that there’s no reason for anyone, any member of NATO, to worry whether or not … we, NATO, would come to their defense.”
Biden’s remarks came after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin placed the roughly 8,500 troops “on a heightened preparedness to deploy,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said at a news briefing on Monday, with the “bulk” of those troops intended to shore up the NATO Response Force .
NATO has not yet activated that multinational force in response to Russia’s aggression, although the alliance announced on Monday that several of its European member states were deploying additional ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe and putting new forces on standby.
Croatia’s president struck a note of disunity on Tuesday, however, threatening to withdraw the country’s troops from NATO forces in Eastern Europe if tensions between Russia and Ukraine ramp up further.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday accused the United States of “escalating tensions” by putting its troops on high alert, telling reporters that Moscow was “watching these U.S. actions with great concern.”
Also on Tuesday, Russia announced a new series of military drills across its territory, including near Ukraine and in annexed Crimea.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, responding to Peskov’s remarks, said at a news briefing on Tuesday that the United States has a responsibility to contribute to the NATO Response Force and that “our commitment to our NATO partners and allies is ironclad.”
“The aggressive behavior here is on the part of the Russians,” Psaki said. “This is a defensive alliance, not an offensive alliance. And what we’re doing here is not making a decision … to deploy, but just to be ready.”
As for the likelihood of a Russian invasion, Psaki said such a scenario “remains imminent, but again, we can’t make a prediction of what decision President Putin will make.”
“I’ll be completely honest with you, it’s a little bit like reading tea leaves,” Biden said on Tuesday about a potential invasion, adding of Putin: “It all comes down to his decision.”
“There will be enormous consequences if he were to go in and invade … not only in terms of economic consequences and political consequences, but enormous consequences worldwide. … If he were to move in with all those forces, it would be the largest invasion since World War II. It would change the world,” Biden said.
On Monday, Biden held a call to discuss the Russia-Ukraine crisis with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom. NATO’s secretary general and the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council also participated in the call.
The leaders discussed “preparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia” for any further aggression against Ukraine, and they “committed to continued close consultation with transatlantic Allies and partners,” according to a White House readout .
Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, told CNN on Tuesday that it was possible the United States would put “additional forces on heightened alert in the coming days and weeks,” beyond the roughly 8,500 troops notified thus far.
In addition, Kirby said the United States may reposition troops already stationed in Europe “to bolster and to reassure some of our allies on the ground on the continent.”
Deputy national security adviser Jon Finer did not rule out potentially deploying troops to Eastern Europe in advance of a possible Russian invasion, telling CNN: “I don’t think we’re taking any options off the table.”
However, U.S. forces “will not be deployed anywhere but on allied territory,” Finer said. “The president has been clear about that, and the alliance has been clear about that. But the timeline and the decision-making will be left up to the alliance, in full consultation with all of our allies.”
Biden himself said on Tuesday that he “may be moving some of those troops in the nearer term, just because it takes time. And again, it’s not provocative.”
In Eastern Europe, “there’s reason for concern. They’re along the Russian border,” Biden said, adding that “spillover effects could occur” as a result of a Russian invasion.
“We have no intention of putting American forces or NATO forces in Ukraine. But, as I said, there are going to be serious economic consequences if [Putin] moves,” Biden said.
Tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border — where Moscow has amassed roughly 100,000 troops — have continued to escalate in recent days, prompting Secretary of State Antony Blinken to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva last Friday.
Blinken left that session pledging to present Russia with a written record of its concerns about Moscow’s behavior and proposals aimed at resolving the security crisis sometime this week.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a news briefing on Monday that the United States does “expect to be in a position to send a written response this week” to Russia, but U.S. officials are first “sharing those ideas” with European allies and “taking their feedback.”
Claire Rafford and Samuel Benson contributed to this report.