WASHINGTON — The Pentagon announced Thursday that military units across the country have been placed on high alert for potential deployment to Europe in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military buildup near Ukraine.
They include units at Fort Bragg, N.C.; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Carson, Colorado; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said.
The 8,500 American troops would be part of a 40,000-member NATO quick-reaction force. It includes a “very high readiness joint task force of combat troops, warplanes, ships and special operation forces. NATO has yet to activate the unit. If it does, the first troops from the United States could deploy in as few as five days.
The units have been notified but not activated, Kirby said.
They would be sent to NATO’s eastern flank, not to Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance. NATO is obliged to come to the aid of a member that is attacked.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the heightened alert, allowing the potential movement of combat, aviation, logistics, medical and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance units.
Putin has ordered more than 100,000 Russian troops to Ukraine’s border, raising concerns of an imminent incursion or full-scale invasion. He wants assurances that Ukraine will not be allowed to join NATO and other concessions from the West.
President Joe Biden has ordered his national security team to develop a range of options including economic sanctions, lethal aid for Ukraine’s military and the deployment of U.S. troops to Europe to reassure allies.
Biden speaks with Ukraine's Zelenskyy
Biden spoke with Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelenskyy on Thursday and reaffirmed that the U.S. and its allies are ready to "respond decisively" if Russia further invades Ukraine, according to a readout from the White House.
Biden noted the U.S., which has provided Ukraine with over half a billion in development and humanitarian aid, is exploring additional financial support to help the besieged country. He said the U.S. embassy in Kyiv remains open and fully operational, despite the departure of some American embassy personnel and family members over the weekend.
The two leaders reaffirmed the principle that "nothing about Ukraine (would be decided) without Ukraine," according to the statement.
In a tweet, Zelenskyy said he and Biden had a "long phone conversation" in which he thanked the U.S. president for America's ongoing military assistance.
White House unsure if Russian diplomacy is just ‘games’
The White House says it's still unclear as to the Russian government’s intentions in diplomatic talks over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
“We don’t know if the Russians are playing games on diplomacy. We hope not,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said during a Thursday press briefing.
Psaki continued that the U.S. was approaching the talks “with a level of seriousness” that they hoped Russian diplomats would match. She said diplomacy would be open “perusing that path should they be open to it.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken previously said in a Sunday interview with NBC News that Russian diplomats may “simply going through the motions” and that negotiations “won't affect their ultimate decision.
The Kremlin expressed disappointment with a U.S. written letter responding to Russian demands over Ukraine’s sovereignty and the security structure of Europe. A Kremlin spokesperson said Russian President Vladimir Putin is still considering the response and Russia’s options to respond.
Russia doesn't find 'cause for optimism' in US reply
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had a tepid response to a U.S.-written letter in response to the Kremlin's security demands over Ukraine.
While he saw some space for cooperation, Lavrov lamented in a Thursday statement that the document had “no positive reaction on the main issue” for the Kremlin's core demand that NATO promise to never admit Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries in the military alliance.
The foreign minister also noted that the letter "is a response which gives hope for the start of a serious conversation on secondary questions."
On Wednesday, the U.S. delivered the response to the Kremlin's demands that the Biden administration crafted after consulting with European and Ukrainian leaders.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the document, which won't be released publicly, presented "core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend," including Ukrainian sovereignty and autonomy from Russian influence.
"Whether they choose the path of diplomacy and dialogue, whether they decide to renew aggression against Ukraine, we’re prepared either way," Blinken said during a Wednesday press conference.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has read the U.S. response, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.
“All the papers are with the President. It will take some time to analyze them, we will not rush to any conclusions,” Peskov said.
“There is not much cause for optimism,” he added.
The U.S. and Russia are still in talks to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict even as Russian troops exercise in the region and the U.S. sends heavy weaponry to Kyiv.
Both sides are preparing for the worst as diplomats await decisions in Moscow and Washington. Russia launched military exercises on Tuesday in Crimea and southeast Russia, while Ukraine continues to receive military aid from NATO countries.
The U.S. has also put 8,500 troops on "high alert" to be deployed at any moment to allied NATO countries, but not to Ukraine. Other NATO countries have either already deployed troops to eastern allies like Romania, Poland and the Baltic countries or are preparing to do so.
Ukrainian officials say they do not see a Russian attack as imminent, given the current build up on the border.
Blinken, Chinese official talk Russia
On Wednesday, Blinken also met with his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, where Blinken "underscored the global security and economic risks posed by further Russian aggression against Ukraine," according to a State Department press release.
Wang in turn called "on all parties to stay calm and refrain from doing things that agitate tensions and hype up the crisis," according to a statement from China's foreign ministry.
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian subramanian
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pentagon IDs units alerted in Ukraine-Russia conflict: What we know