The Pentagon announced on Monday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is travelling to visit eastern NATO allies in Europe this week amid uncertainty over whether Russia will decide to invade Ukraine.
Austin is set to leave on Feb. 15 and will visit Belgium, Poland, and Lithuania to meet with government and military leaders, according to a DOD press release.
In Belgium, Austin will meet with allied defense ministers and NATO leadership to discuss the Russian troop buildup along its border with Ukraine, as well as in Belarus and Russia-annexed Crimea. He will also reaffirm U.S. commitment to the Article 5 defense agreement, according to the release.
Austin will then head to Poland to meet with rotational U.S. troops at Powidz Air Base and will also meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda and Minister of National Defense of Poland Mariusz Błaszczak.
In Lithuania, Austin will meet with Lithuanian leadership to discuss efforts to strengthen Lithuania’s armed forces and visit U.S. troops stationed in the country. He will also meet with defense leadership from Estonia and Latvia.
This comes after the Biden administration announced plans on Feb. 2 to up its troop presence in Eastern Europe. That deployment includes about 2,000 troops going to Germany and Poland, and a 1,000-member mounted cavalry unit moving to Romania from Germany,
U.S. officials are continuing their message of urgency as it relates to a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine.
White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated to reporters on Monday that Russia could invade “any day,” repeating national security advisor Jake Sullivan’s comments from Friday that Russia may choose to invade before the completion of the Beijing Olympics on Feb. 20.
“In the past ten days or so when you look at what is happening at the border of Ukraine, we are seeing more than 100,000 troops there, and it’s just been an everyday more and more troops,” she said.
U.S. officials have also advised all U.S. citizens in Ukraine to leave the country, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Monday that U.S. personnel were being relocated from the embassy in Kyiv to the western city of Lviv, citing a “dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces.”
Russia has denied that its intentions are an invasion. And on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow for more time for diplomacy.
“It seems to me that our possibilities are far from exhausted,” said Lavrov in a televised exchange with Putin. “At this stage, I would suggest continuing and building them up.”
Russia has demanded that NATO not allow Ukraine to become a member of the defense alliance. NATO countries have said that any decision on whether Ukraine joins should be left to NATO and Ukraine.
At a press conference in Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated his country’s aspiration of joining NATO, but called into question how long Ukraine would head down this path, saying that the prospect of NATO membership could be “like a dream.”
The United States has warned Russia of severe sanctions if it moves to invade Ukraine and has said that sending U.S. troops into Ukraine in the event of a Russian invasion is “off the table.”