Looming War: US troops on high alert over threat of Russian invasion of Ukraine

US soldiers pictured in the opening ceremony of the "Rapid Trident-2018" international military exercises in Starytchi, outside Lviv on September 3, 2018.

Some 8,500 combat-ready US troops are on high alert to deploy at short notice amid rising tension over Ukraine, the Pentagon says.

Russia continues to deny planning military action against Ukraine, despite massing 100,000 troops nearby.

President Biden held a video call with European allies on Monday as Western powers aim for a common strategy against Russian aggression. The Pentagon said no decision had yet been made on whether to deploy troops.

It would only happen if the Nato military alliance decides to activate a rapid-reaction force, “or if other situations develop” around the Russian troop build-up, said Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. There are no plans to deploy to Ukraine itself, he added.

Some Nato members, including Denmark, Spain, France and the Netherlands, are already planning or considering sending fighter jets and warships to eastern Europe to bolster defences in the region. Over the weekend, some 90 tonnes of US “lethal aid” including ammunition for “front-line defenders” arrived in Ukraine.

As well as President Biden, Monday’s video call included UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Polish President Andrzej Duda and Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg. EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel also dialled in. “I had a very, very, very good meeting – total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Mr Biden said afterwards.

The Kremlin has said it sees Nato as a security threat, and is demanding legal guarantees that the alliance will not expand further east, including into neighbouring Ukraine. But the US has said the issue at stake is Russian aggression, not Nato expansion. The Biden administration told relatives of its embassy staff to leave Ukraine on Sunday, and the UK has started withdrawing staff from its embassy.

When US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks in Switzerland last week, the Russian expressed hope that emotions would decrease.

Diplomatic wrangling has failed to ease tensions, however, and Russia’s currency – the rouble – has seen big falls in value. The US and its allies have threatened new economic sanctions if the Russian military moves against Ukraine. For months now, the Ukrainians have been preparing a territorial defence force of volunteers. They are training for a possible defence of Kyiv.

Russia has seized Ukrainian territory before, when it annexed Crimea in 2014. After Russian forces seized control, Crimea voted to join Russia in a referendum the West and Ukraine deemed illegal.

Russian-backed rebels also control areas of eastern Ukraine near Russia’s borders. That conflict has cost an estimated 14,000 lives, with a 2015 peace deal a long way from being fulfilled.

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