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U.S. troops to head to Eastern Europe as Russia masses forces on Ukraine's border

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

About 3,000 U.S. troops will be headed to Poland, Romania and Germany. They're part of an effort to shore up NATO allies in Eastern Europe as Russia positions forces on Ukraine's border. John Kirby is the Pentagon spokesman. He made the announcement this morning. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JOHN KIRBY: Thank you so much, sir. Good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: Russia has had more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border for weeks now. So why announce this U.S. troop movement today? Did something on the ground change this week?

KIRBY: Well, nothing really changed dramatically, but what we've seen is a continued addition to his force capability in western Russia and in Belarus over the course of many, many weeks here, including just over the last few days. He continues to add capability. But what you're seeing today isn't really a - it's not a reaction to anything in the very recent past, i.e. the last couple of days. It's really been a build up of conversations that we've been having over the last several weeks with our NATO allies and our partners about what they're seeing and the concerns that they have. And so deployment inside Europe, from Germany to Romania, that thousand Stryker Squadron soldiers, I mean, they're really an outgrowth of a direct dialogue we've had with Romanian leaders about what their concerns are and what capabilities they think they might need to help defend themselves.

SHAPIRO: One of Russian President Vladimir Putin's biggest concerns has been NATO's strengthening its eastern border near Russia. Is there a risk that these troop moves play to his fears and possibly even give him more of a reason to invade?

KIRBY: It's ironic. The very thing that he says he doesn't want, he's going to end up getting - a strong NATO on NATO's eastern flank and his western flank. He has himself to thank for that because of the...

SHAPIRO: But the risk is whether the U.S.'s also saying it doesn't want war, ends up getting war in spite of itself because of this, well, if you do A, I'll do B and then you'll do C, I'll do D. You know how this goes.

KIRBY: Nobody wants war, and nobody wants to see this escalate. And that's why we've said all along we still think there's a path for diplomacy here. We still think that Mr. Putin can de-escalate the situation very, very easily, simply by moving some of those troops away and stop with the threatening behavior towards Ukraine. But because we don't have perfect visibility into his thinking, because we don't know what he'll do next or how far he will go, we have an obligation through Article 5 through a treaty with our NATO allies to defend them if they're attacked. And so what you're seeing us do is what we believe to be prudent, necessary, responsible moves of a moderate level to make sure that we are again helping our allies defend themselves, helping come to the defense of them should it be required. Hopefully, it won't be. And again, there's no reason for it to evolve into conflict if Mr. Putin will simply choose the diplomatic path forward that we have laid in front of him.

SHAPIRO: Through all of this, Ukraine's leaders have been urging calm. The foreign minister told my co-host Mary Louise Kelly recently that this talk of impending war hurts Ukraine. Is there a risk that these moves by the U.S. will actually undermine the country that the nation is trying to protect?

KIRBY: One of the things we've tried to do is continually consult our Ukrainian counterparts about what they're seeing and their perspective. And we certainly understand that they have concerns as well. I mean, they are right at the doorstep there. And we...

SHAPIRO: Have they endorsed and supported this move, as far as you know?

KIRBY: We have kept all our allies and partners informed about what we're doing. But again, we have an obligation to meet our NATO commitment. And we're talking to our NATO allies and partners, and we're trying to provide capabilities that they believe they need. This isn't just a unilateral decision by the United States to just, you know, park people on allied territory. It's part of a conversation and a dialogue. So if we're sending forces to these NATO allies, it's because those NATO allies want those forces, and it's at their invitation that they're coming. And again, this is really about reassuring the allies. This is not about trying to spark conflict or increase the tensions any more than they already are. And again, I go back to what I said before. Mr. Putin can easily take the tensions down by removing some of his troops away from Ukraine's borders.

SHAPIRO: So I hear you broadly saying that NATO allies have been consulted and included, and this is being done in conjunction with them. But you're stopping short of saying Ukrainian leaders specifically endorse this move. It sounds like maybe we need to ask the Ukrainians that question.

KIRBY: Yeah, I certainly won't speak for Ukraine's leaders. What I can tell you is that we have been very consultative and very transparent about the decisions that we're making. But again, I would certainly not speak for Ukraine in this regard. And again, these are troops that are designed to help bolster the defense of NATO. And I use the word defense very, very clearly. This is not about offensive maneuvers or any offensive capabilities or any desire to see this spark into conflict. This is about defensive capabilities because NATO's a defensive alliance.

SHAPIRO: Finally, do you expect that more U.S. troops may be sent in the future?

KIRBY: It's certainly possible. We have not ruled out the relocation of additional forces inside Europe to elsewhere in Europe, and we certainly have not ruled out the possibility that the president and the Secretary of Defense might find it suitable and necessary to send additional troops from the United States to Europe. We're going to watch this day by day. We're going to continue to evaluate what the conditions look like. And if we believe it's the best thing to do for, again, our NATO alliances - and our NATO alliance and to our responsibilities inside that alliance, we'll do it.

SHAPIRO: Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, thank you for speaking with us.

KIRBY: Yes, sir. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has been listening in. And, Tom, I know that this news was not unexpected. How would you describe the mission for the U.S. troops that are being dispatched right now?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, the mission really is vague, as John Kirby just said, to meet the self-defense as part of a NATO alliance. But Putin has made no threats to NATO. There are already some American troops in Poland, some 4,000, and hundreds more in Romania. There's no practical military reason here for these additional U.S. troops. This is not a combat deployment, as he said, or even a training mission, and no troops will head into Ukraine. President Biden already has ruled that out. This is all political messaging. The hope is that this will force Putin to back down. Some are praising the move, and I'm hearing some on Capitol Hill want to send even more troops. But there's some concern that such troop movements Putin will see as provocative and maybe make an invasion of Ukraine more likely because this is precisely what he worries about - further NATO expansion on his western border. And there are some I'm talking with in Washington that are also worried about this could be provocative. But, you know, he could see this as a pretext to go in. And of course, as we heard from John Kirby, he said, this should not goad Putin. There's no reason these troop moves should reinforce his concerns. He is the aggressor.

SHAPIRO: And meanwhile, what is the state of the Russian troop buildup at this point? How serious is this presence around Ukraine?

BOWMAN: Oh, it's very serious. Officials say Putin continues to deploy forces along the Ukrainian border on three sides. Military exercises are planned in the coming days with Belarus to Ukraine's north. Right now, Ari, more than 100,000 Russian troops on the border. Officials say that number could ramp up to 175,000. There's growing concern in Washington what this may look like. Some are saying they expect a massive invasion anytime between the middle of the month to sometime in later March.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Lauren Hodges is an associate producer for All Things Considered. She joined the show in 2018 after seven years in the NPR newsroom as a producer and editor. She doesn't mind that you used her pens, she just likes them a certain way and asks that you put them back the way you found them, thanks. Despite years working on interviews with notable politicians, public figures, and celebrities for NPR, Hodges completely lost her cool when she heard RuPaul's voice and was told to sit quietly in a corner during the rest of the interview. She promises to do better next time.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.