WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden consulted with European leaders on Monday afternoon as pressure builds between Russia and NATO over Ukraine.
NATO said Monday it would move more military equipment and troops into countries on the alliance’s eastern front. Russia has built up at least 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, threatening that conflict may be necessary to preserve its national security.
Also Monday, the Pentagon announced it is putting 8,500 U.S. troops on "heightened alert" for possible deployment to Eastern Europe amid the crisis.
"No decisions have been made to deploy any forces from the United States at this time," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Monday during a briefing.
Kirby said many of the troops put on alert were ordered to prepare to mobilize within 10 days. That will be shortened to five days for some, but not all, of the notified service members.
“It’s very clear that the Russians right now have no intention of de-escalating," Kirby said. The Pentagon “wanted to make sure we were ready.”
Denmark is sending a frigate and deploying F-16 warplanes to Lithuania; Spain will send warships and could send fighter jets to Bulgaria; and France stands ready to send troops to Romania.
"We will always respond to any deterioration of our security environment, including through strengthening our collective defense," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.
Biden said last week that the United States would move more troops and equipment into NATO's eastern countries, should Russia continue to threaten an invasion.
"We've never ruled out providing additional assistance to eastern flank countries in advance of any invasion," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a regular press briefing Monday. She said talks with allies on U.S. troop and weapons deployments are "ongoing."
Sunday, the United States ordered the families of U.S. diplomats to leave Kyiv, an action several European diplomats called premature. The United Kingdom announced the same move on Monday, saying it was “in response to the growing threat from Russia.”
"Now is the time to leave, and there are means to do that," Psaki said in a message directed to Americans in Ukraine, noting that the situation was similar to emergency calls to evacuate in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan , among others.
She said there are no plans to evacuate Americans from Ukraine by military aircraft, except the families of U.S. diplomats. Other Americans have been encouraged to leave via available commercial flights.
Diplomatic talks between the West and Russia slowed as negotiations expanded into a broader debate over the security structure of post-Cold War Europe.
The White House said Biden spoke Monday afternoon via a video call with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, NATO's Stoltenberg, Polish President Andrzej Duda and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Kremlin lambasted NATO's troop movements, arguing that the West's mobilization was inciting "hysteria."
Ireland, a non-NATO country, said Russia performed military exercises off its coast, a move that was not welcome.
European Union foreign ministers reconvened to show a united front supporting Ukraine in an effort to downplay concerns Europe would not respond cohesively to Russian aggression.
Asked whether the EU would evacuate the families of diplomats from Ukraine, EU foreign policy head Josep Borrell said, "We are not going to do the same thing." He said he is keen to hear from Secretary of State Antony Blinken about that decision.
Ukraine's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, said the U.S. decision was "a premature step" and a sign of "excessive caution." He said Russia is sowing panic among Ukrainians and foreigners to destabilize Ukraine.
Germany is monitoring developments, but Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stressed that "we must not contribute to unsettling the situation further; we need to continue to support the Ukrainian government very clearly and above all maintain the stability of the country."
Gas prices play role in EU unity over Russia
Diverse political, business and energy interests have long divided the 27-country EU in its approach to Moscow. About 40% of the EU's natural gas imports come from Russia, much of it via pipelines across Ukraine.
Gas prices have skyrocketed, and Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, said Russian energy giant Gazprom reduced its exports to the EU in late 2021 despite high prices. Russian President Vladimir Putin said Gazprom is respecting its contract obligations, not putting the squeeze on Europe.
Germany's Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia, which is complete but yet to pump gas, has become a bargaining chip. French President Macron renewed calls for an EU summit with Putin.
Late last year, France and Germany expressed doubts about U.S. intelligence assessments that Moscow might be preparing to invade.
Late Saturday, the head of the German navy, Vice Adm. Kay-Achim Schonbach, resigned after saying Ukraine would not regain the Crimean Peninsula and suggesting Putin deserves "respect."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban plans to meet with Putin next week to discuss a Russian-backed project to expand a Hungarian nuclear power plant.
Diplomats and officials said hard-hitting sanctions are being drawn up with the EU's executive branch, the European Commission. They were reluctant to say what the measures might be or what action by Russia might trigger them.
The aim, they said, is to try to match the doubts Putin has sowed about his intentions for Ukraine with uncertainty about what any retaliatory European action might look like, or when it would come.
Follow Matthew Brown online @mrbrownsir.
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine-Russia tensions: Biden talks to allies; US troops put on alert