Austin briefed Biden on options, including moving U.S. troops to nations next to Ukraine

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin briefed President Joe Biden on Saturday about U.S. options for responding if Russia invades Ukraine as well as options for U.S. military movements in advance of an invasion, according to a defense official and a senior administration official.

As Biden weighed his options, the State Department on Sunday ordered family members of embassy employees in Kyiv to leave and authorized non-emergency diplomatic employees in Ukraine to depart.

It also warned Americans not to travel to Ukraine or Russia, citing the possibility of Russian military action as well as “the potential throughout Russia of harassment towards foreigners,” a department spokesperson said.

Among the options presented for the U.S. military in advance of an invasion were bomber flights over the region, ship visits into the Black Sea, and moving troops and some equipment from other parts of Europe into Poland, Romania, and other countries neighboring Ukraine. 

Austin presented options intended to reassure NATO allies and reinforce their defenses, specifically the defenses of those nations bordering Ukraine, said the officials. The goal is to show unity and strength among NATO and deter Russian aggression against allies in the region, the officials said. 

Biden was at Camp David and Austin briefed him via secure video teleconference (VTC). Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley was also on the VTC. Generally the secretary briefs the president and then the chairman provides more operational specifics. 

Some details of the briefing were previously reported by the New York Times.

Gen. Tod Wolters, the commander of U.S. European Command and supreme allied commander Europe, has been preparing options for weeks, the defense official and senior administration official said. Wolters has the authority to move some forces around his theater but he is keeping Austin and military leaders informed given the gravity of the situation, the officials said.

The briefing to Biden included the latest intelligence that the Russian military has not stopped building up forces around Ukraine, the officials said. 

Another defense official said Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to add more military units and flow forces to the border areas around Ukraine. “He’s getting stronger, literally by the day,” the defense official said. 

The officials would not say whether Biden approved any movements, but the senior administration official did say re-positioning of some troops and assets could happen “in the coming days.”

On Monday, the U.S. military and NATO begin Exercise Neptune Strike ’22, which includes training with NATO allies for capabilities that could be used against Russia. As part of the exercise, the USS Harry S. Truman carrier strike group will conduct long-range strike training and anti-submarine warfare training from the Mediterranean. 

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the exercise is “designed to demonstrate NATO’s ability to integrate the high-end maritime strike capabilities of an aircraft carrier strike group, to support the deterrence and defense of the alliance.”

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