U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has arrived in Brussels for talks with NATO leadership and allied defense ministers, as tens of thousands of Russian troops have surrounded Ukraine from the north, south and east.
During the gathering on Wednesday and Thursday, Austin and his counterparts will discuss how to deter Russia from invading Ukraine while shoring up defenses on the alliance’s eastern flank.
“This really is a decisive moment for NATO, the likes of which we have not really seen potentially since NATO was established in 1949,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This is where American leadership in NATO matters,” he told VOA.
The “underlying message” from NATO and the United States will be to protect the international rules-based order by calling out “egregious attempts to undermine the rule of law” and “upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of states,” according to a senior defense official.
“We cannot allow an adversary to try to redraw borders by force without facing significant consequences,” the official added.
Austin will then travel to NATO members Poland and Lithuania, Russian neighbors that have watched the developments surrounding Ukraine with increasing concern.
While in Poland on Friday, Austin will meet with President Andrzej Duda before visiting U.S. troops. The United States will soon have about 9,000 troops in Poland after President Joe Biden earlier this month ordered nearly 5,000 additional troops to deploy there, citing security concerns due to Russia’s recent moves.
In Lithuania, Austin will meet with President Gitanas Nauseda and host a meeting with that country’s defense minister along with those from Estonia and Latvia.
President Joe Biden said Tuesday Russia has 150,000 troops surrounding Ukraine, including in Belarus to the north, the illegally annexed Crimea region to the south, and along the Russian border with Ukraine to the east. Russian ships are also exercising nearby in the Black Sea, which prompted a formal protest from Ukraine’s foreign ministry.
“I think of a boa constrictor that is squeezing Ukraine to force the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky to blink, to make some giant concession,” retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who once commanded U.S. Army forces in Europe, told VOA.
Russia’s defense ministry announced Tuesday that some military units would pull back to their bases, a claim that Biden said the U.S. had not yet verified.
Meanwhile, Russian legislators passed proposals Tuesday calling on President Vladimir Putin to formally recognize the separatist-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine as independent states, in a move that could justify an incursion in an area it no longer recognizes as Ukraine’s territory.
The United States has pushed for a diplomatic solution to the tensions and has said it will not fight Russian forces in Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO.
The U.S. has shipped planeloads of lethal military aid to Ukraine in recent weeks, including Javelin anti-tank weapons and ammunition. A small number of U.S. troops had also trained Ukrainian soldiers through a program that started following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, but those troops were ordered by Austin to leave Ukraine a few days ago, citing concerns that a potential Russian invasion could come at any moment.
NATO allies have made multiple attempts to get Putin to pull his troops away from Ukraine’s border and have threatened severe economic sanctions should Russian troops invade.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrived in Moscow on Tuesday for talks with Putin. Biden called Putin on Saturday. French President Emanuel Macron spoke face to face with Putin last week.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the other hand, expressed his support for Putin during the heightened tensions over Moscow’s forces surrounding Ukraine.
Current and former U.S. officials have warned that an invasion of Ukraine could embolden other adversaries.
“If the United States with all of our allies, all of our partners and the combined diplomatic and economic power, cannot deter the Kremlin from … another attack on Ukraine, then I think the Chinese Communist Party leadership is not going to be terribly impressed by anything that we say about Taiwan or the South China Sea,” Hodges said.