NATO defense ministers are meeting as the alliance faces the biggest challenge in Europe since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Alliance members are united in their opposition to Russian threats against Ukrainian sovereignty and have called on Russia to de-escalate the situation by pulling its troops from the border of Ukraine.
The Russian defense ministry said yesterday that some military units are leaving their positions near Ukraine. "That would be good, but we have not yet verified that," President Joe Biden said during an update on the situation from the White House. "We have not yet verified that Russian military units are returning to their home bases. Indeed, our analysts indicate that they remain very much in a threatening position. And the fact remains: Right now, Russia has more than 150,000 troops encircling Ukraine in Belarus and along Ukraine's border."
The Russians have sent mixed signals, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said today at the beginning of the meeting of the alliance's defense ministers. "I think the message and the signs we heard from Moscow yesterday provides some grounds for cautious optimism because that was a message about diplomacy," he said. "We have been ready for diplomatic efforts [and] talks with Russia throughout this crisis. We have stated that again and again and conveyed our proposals to Russia in writing, and we are waiting for their response."
"At the same time, we have not seen any withdrawal of Russian forces," Stoltenberg continued. "That contradicts the message of real diplomatic efforts. It remains to be seen whether there is a Russian withdrawal. We are monitoring very closely what Russia does in and around Ukraine. They have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way. So far, there is no de-escalation."
The Russian build-up is unprecedented since the end of the Cold War, and Stoltenberg repeated that Russian President Vladimir Putin "still has time to step back from the brink, stop preparing for war, and start working for a peaceful solution."
The alliance is working for a diplomatic solution, but it is preparing for any scenario. The secretary general welcomed the increased U.S. presence in Europe with more troops in the eastern part of the alliance. The United States moved a 1,000-man Stryker squadron from Germany to Romania and is deploying a brigade from the 82nd Airborne to Poland. There is also a 300-man headquarters now operating in Germany.
In addition, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III has ordered 8,500 service members to a heightened level of readiness and set to deploy if NATO activates its Rapid Reaction Force.
The U.S. troop movements are concrete examples of the U.S. commitment to NATO and the premise that an attack on one is an attack on all. "You've heard us say a number of times that we're committed to Article 5 and also the principles of collective security," Austin told Stoltenberg before the ministerial began. "So you can expect that commitment will remain rock solid going forward."