Pentagon: US military action in Ukraine depends on what Putin does

The Pentagon has put 8,500 U.S. troops on a heightened alert for the possibility of being sent to Europe, but whether they will be activated will depend on what Russian President Vladimir Putin “does or doesn’t do,” when it comes to Ukraine, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Tuesday. 

John Kirby
John Kirby

He also would not rule out if even more U.S. troops will be put on alert. 

“All we’ve done here is put them on heightened alert posture, on a shorter bit of a tether, but there’s been no activation; there have been no deployment orders,” Kirby told CNN’s Kate Bolduan. “It’s difficult to tell how soon this would happen.”

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But if Putin makes an incursion into Ukraine, “that, certainly, I believe could drive NATO and other allies to make posture decisions they haven’t made yet,” said Kirby.

Kirby said on Monday, while announcing the troop alert, that the order is about ensuring that the United States will be ready to respond if NATO deployed its response force.

He explained on Tuesday that the force’s activation would be up to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in consultation with Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of U.S. European Command and NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe. 

President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has “agreed to make these troops available to these troops, and available to the task force, if, in fact, it’s activated.”

However, he said that not all of the troops that were discussed on Monday are designated for the NATO readiness force. 

“Some of these are also being told to be on a heightened alert just for our own United States purposes, to see if there’s a need for us to continue to reassure on a bilateral basis with some of our NATO allies over in Europe,” said Kirby. 

Kirby said that he did not know how long it would take to send the troops overseas, if needed, or how soon that decision could happen. 

He also would rule out the possibility that even more U.S. troops could be put on heightened alert in upcoming days or moving troops that are already in Europe around to “bolster and to reassure some of our allies on the ground in the continent.”

The Pentagon is preparing for many contingencies, as the United States wants to be sure it meets its commitments to its NATO allies and partners and to “continue to provide security assistance to Ukraine so that they can defend themselves.”

The United States has also shipped assistance to Ukraine in the course of the past few days, said Kirby, and “there will be more coming. We’re also focused on making sure we can have the Ukrainian armed forces defend themselves as well.”

Meanwhile, Deputy National Security Adviser Jonathan Finer told CNN earlier Tuesday that the troops will “not be deployed anywhere but on allied territory,” but no options are off the table, and Kirby agreed that the current plans are not about sending troops elsewhere. 

“Mr. Finer is exactly right,” said Kirby. “We’re not taking any options off the table in terms of the when. It’s really just right now about making sure they are ready to go on a little bit shorter timeline than they were before.”

He added that Biden has made it clear that he wants options from the Department of Defense to reassure the nation’s NATO allies. 

“We have had a small number of trainers inside Ukraine for many months, advising Ukrainian armed forces, said Kirby. “What we’ll do with them depends on what the security situation looks like but the president has been very clear from a military perspective, he wants us focused on reassuring our NATO allies and that’s what we’re intending to do.”

Kirby also dismissed questions about whether the United States is hindering the element of surprise where Russia is concerned. 

“This isn’t about surprise on our part,” he said. “This is about reassuring our allies. Just yesterday, I stood up at the podium and gave a number and I said, ‘We’re putting on a heightened alert.’ We’re being nothing but transparent about what we’re doing militarily … we still don’t think Mr. Putin has made a decision.

“We still think there’s time and space for diplomacy but obviously, more transparency about Moscow would be welcome.”

He also insisted that the troop alerts and U.S. involvement with Ukraine are important for the United States’ national security.

“It is in our interest to maintain security and stability on the European continent,” said Kirby. “We have tens of thousands of American forces deployed either rotationally or permanently on the European continent.

“Security and stability there are very much in our national security interest, and we still believe that we have an obligation to help Ukraine defend itself and to defend its borders, and that’s why we continue the security assistance and we’re not alone in that … this is something the entire international community should be aligned on, and frankly, we’re seeing that kind of alignment inside the NATO alliance.”