US troops won?t partake in ?combat operations,? but defense secretary didn?t rule out other roles for American soldiers
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters that President Joe Biden "does not intend to put troops into Ukraine for combat operations." However, Austin said that every possible military option short of a direct deployment is on the table.
Though negotiations have stalled, with the US refusing to back down on insisting that Ukraine be allowed to join the NATO alliance, Austin told reporters on Friday that "conflict is not inevitable" with Russia.
Russian troops remain stationed near its own western borders, but amid talk of a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, Austin conceded that the US doesn't know whether Russian President Vladimir Putin "has made a final decision to use these forces against Ukraine."
Despite ruling out "combat operations," the US is preparing for military action in other ways. Some 8,500 American troops have been placed on alert to deploy to Eastern Europe, and Austin said that these troops could be used to "reinforce security on NATO's eastern flank." And while Ukraine is not a member of NATO, Austin suggested that "any Russian attack" would be met with "unified" opposition from the alliance.
Austin then warned Moscow that "an attack against one NATO member is an attack against us all," although Russia has not signaled any intention to attack any members of the NATO alliance. His comments suggest a muddying of the lines between Ukraine and the alliance, and hint that NATO forces will be operating in close proximity to any potential conflict that breaks out.
Austin also boasted of the US' ongoing efforts to shore up Ukraine's military with arms shipments, stating that the US has sent $650 million worth of military aid to Kiev in the last year, with President Biden authorizing a package of anti-tank weapons, grenade launchers, artillery, and small arms in December. The latest shipment arrived on Friday, he announced.
Both the US and NATO have formally rejected Russia's calls for a binding agreement on halting the eastward expansion of the alliance. Opposing NATO's expansion into the former Warsaw Pact states has been Russian policy since the end of the Cold War, when Western leaders promised their Soviet counterparts the alliance wouldn't push eastwards. Although that promise was broken in the late 1990s when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, the current US position is that such a promise was never made, and that NATO's membership books must remain open - even for states bordering Russia.
Speaking to French President Emmanuel Macron earlier on Friday, Putin expressed dissatisfaction with the West's refusal to accept an end to NATO enlargement.
The Kremlin's messaging has been just as uncompromising as the West's in recent days. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday that "If it is up to the Russian Federation, there will be no war." However, he added that Moscow "will not allow our interests to be brutally attacked or to be ignored either."