Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III is traveling to Europe for meetings with NATO allies during an especially fraught time.
Austin will participate in the alliance's defense ministerial meetings in Brussels, then travel to Poland for meetings and on to Lithuania where he will talk with leaders of the Baltic states, according to a senior defense official who discussed the situation in Europe with reporters traveling with Austin.
Overshadowing the meetings is Russia's de-stabilizing military buildup on its borders with Ukraine and in Belarus. Last week, President Joe Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said another Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen at any time should Russian President Vladimir Putin order it.
News reports from Moscow say Russia will start withdrawing troops from the region. Still, through the past weekend, Putin continued to move troops and military equipment into the border region, the official said.
"Russia has well upwards of 100,000 troops encircling Ukraine and about 30,000 of those are in Belarus," the official said. "We have watched as the Russians have really essentially accumulated all of the capabilities that they would need to have a decisive invasion of Ukraine."
This doesn't have to happen. "We do still believe that Putin could decide, if he wanted to, to take the path of diplomacy and that is something that we have tried to pursue steadfastly," the official said.
If a Russian attack on Ukraine goes forward, it is likely to begin with aerial bombing and missile attacks that obviously could kill civilians. "A subsequent ground invasion would involve the onslaught of massive force," the official said.
Diplomacy is preferred and leaders around the world have urged Putin to choose the path of de-escalation. President Biden has spoken with Putin, and Austin and Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have spoken with their Russian counterparts. "President Biden spoke with President Putin on Saturday to make clear that if Russia undertakes a further invasion of Ukraine, the United States together with our allies and partners will respond decisively and impose swift and severe costs on Russia," the official said. "President Biden reiterated that a further Russian invasion of Ukraine would produce widespread human suffering and diminish Russia's standing in the world. He communicated that there is a diplomatic path forward, but only if Russia is willing to engage seriously. We remain ready to engage in results-oriented diplomacy in full coordination with our allies and partners."
The official said the United States is "clear-eyed" about the prospects of a diplomatic resolution given the steps that Russia has taken, but "the stakes of this are too high to not give Russia every chance to avoid an action that we believe would be catastrophic."
The underlying message of Austin's trip is the NATO alliance must uphold the international rules-based order. "We have to call out egregious attempts to undermine the rule of law, and we have to focus on our common values including upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states," the official said.
U.S. military forces are responding appropriately. Some 8,500 U.S. troops are on a heightened state of readiness should NATO activate its Rapid Response Force. Another 1,000 soldiers from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment have deployed from Germany to Romania. An infantry brigade combat team from the 82nd Airborne Division is deploying to Poland and a headquarters element from the 18th Airborne Corps in deploying to Germany.
The situation with Russia will obviously dominate the discussions at NATO in Brussels, the official said. The official praised the strong and united response of the alliance to Russia's moves.
In Poland, the secretary will focus on enhancing bilateral cooperation and deepening the Polish American partnership, the official said. The secretary will also have an opportunity to visit U.S. troops.
In Lithuania, Austin will meet defense leaders of the front-line states.