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U.S. Puts 8,500 Troops on High Alert as Tension Rises Between NATO & Russia over Ukraine

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The U.S. has prepared some 8,500 troops to deploy to Eastern Europe in the event that Russia invades Ukraine, which Russian President Vladimir Putin denies is his goal. On Wednesday, officials from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany are scheduled to meet in Paris to negotiate resolving the crisis. “The security of Europe ought to be principally Europe’s business,” says Anatol Lieven, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “This whole notion of great power competition, which is embedded in the National Defense Strategy, has been used as kind of the magic key to keep Pentagon spending at near-records levels,” says national security expert William Hartung, research fellow at the Quincy Institute.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pentagon has placed 8,500 troops — up from 5,000 — on heightened alert to potentially deploy to Eastern Europe over concerns Russia may soon invade Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO allies have accused Russia of amassing 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border, but Russia is denying it’s planning an invasion. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby spoke Monday.

JOHN KIRBY: Secretary Austin has placed a range of units in the United States on a heightened preparedness to deploy, which increases our readiness to provide forces if NATO should activate the NRF or if other situations develop. All told, the number of forces that the secretary has placed on heightened alert comes up to about 8,500 personnel. … But again, no mission has been assigned to these troops; no deployment orders have been sent to them. What the secretary has ordered them to do is to be ready to go in some cases on a much shorter tether than what they had before.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as other NATO nations are planning to send additional troops, ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe. Plans call for France to send troops to Romania, Denmark to send F-16 jets to Lithuania, and for the Netherlands to send F-35 jets to Bulgaria. Last week, the Biden administration gave Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia approval to send U.S.-made weapons to Ukraine. On Monday, the Kremlin accused the United States and NATO of escalating tension in the region.

DMITRY PESKOV: [translated] We are seeing statements from the North Atlantic Alliance about more troops, pulling forces and assets into the eastern flank. All of it is causing tensions to rise. I’d like to point out it is not because of what we, Russia, are doing; it’s all happening because of what NATO, the United States are doing and the information they are spreading.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov. Negotiations to resolve the crisis are ongoing. On Wednesday, officials from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany are scheduled to meet in Paris.

We’re joined now by two guests. Anatol Lieven is with us, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s the author of numerous books on Russia and the former Soviet republics, including Ukraine and Russia: A Fraternal Rivalry. He’s joining us from Britain. Also with us, William Hartung, research fellow at the Quincy Institute. His latest book is Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.

Anatol Lieven, let’s begin with you. Can you lay out why this crisis has heightened to this point? And do you believe Putin will invade Ukraine?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, the crisis has grown to this point because of Russia’s deep unhappiness with the expansion of NATO to its borders and the threat of NATO admitting Ukraine, which Russia regards in much the same light that America regards the appearance of hostile military alliances in Central America. I don’t think, and the American intelligence does not think, that the Russians have made up their mind yet to invade, but there is certainly an implicit threat that they may do so, if no compromise is reached between Russia’s demands and American and NATO positions.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’d like to ask you — the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki talked about, quote, “the sacred obligation to defend the security of our eastern flank allies.” But this sacred obligation is only relatively recent and only as a result of NATO’s direct expansion eastward, isn’t it?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, that’s absolutely true. But these countries are now part of NATO, and so, you know, America and the other NATO allies have a treaty obligation to defend them. Ukraine, of course, is not in NATO. And the Biden administration and NATO have explicitly ruled out sending troops to Ukraine. I mean, this is the real point about this possible U.S. and NATO military deployment to the Baltic states and other NATO members. Russia has no intention of attacking these countries. It has shown absolutely no indication that it’s going to attack them. So these troops are not really fulfilling any useful function at all.

By the way, also, I mean, if Russia were threatening to attack them, then the deployments being made would be absolutely ridiculous. You know, Denmark is sending precisely two fighter jets. Holland is sending one ship. You know, it’s very lucky for us that Russia is not actually a threat to NATO, because that wouldn’t stop them. No, I mean, I think the only possible useful role of these new NATO deployments is that we can offer to take them away again in return for Russia withdrawing its troops from the borders of Ukraine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But the possibility of Russia moving into eastern Ukraine centers around this issue of the separatist movement there. Could you talk about the Donetsk and Donbas regions, which most Americans don’t know much about, the historical basis for which Russia is so concerned about that area?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, the eastern southern Ukraine as a whole is mostly populated by people who have Russian as their first language, even if they’re not ethnic Russians. And about 20% of the whole Ukrainian population are in fact ethnic Russians. In the Donbas coal mining region of eastern Ukraine, ethnic Russians are in fact a majority. And that region was always deeply — well, it voted very strongly to continue the Soviet Union, that Ukraine should stay in the Soviet Union. And since the fall of the Soviet Union, people there have always voted for pro-Russian parties and have strongly opposed ethnic Ukrainian nationalism and moves from Kyiv to try to make use of the Ukrainian language obligatory, to eliminate Russian from schools and so forth. So there’s a long history there of support for close ties to Russia and also support for local autonomy.

So, when the Ukrainian revolution occurred in 2014 and the president was overthrown, a president who had been elected with a huge majority in the Donbas, there was a local revolt against Ukraine, calling for separation from Ukraine, which was then backed in a kind of lightly veiled way by Russian troops. And since then, we’ve had a frozen conflict in that area, which periodically breaks out into new fighting.

Now, in 2015, France and Germany brokered an agreement — a very sensible agreement, in my view — whereby the Donbas would return to Ukraine but enjoying full autonomy, under Ukrainian guarantees, and would also be demilitarized. But the Ukrainian parliament and government since then have refused actually to guarantee permanent autonomy for the Donbas. So, one of the Russian hopes is that this process, this peace process, the Minsk II agreement, can be relaunched and that you can in fact have a settlement in eastern Ukraine based on the principles of Minsk II and local autonomy for the Donbas.

AMY GOODMAN: Anatol Lieven, what do you make of this New York Times report saying that Britain said Moscow is plotting to install a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine? Russia says this is hysteria.

ANATOL LIEVEN: I don’t think that the Russians would try to install a pro-Russian government in the whole of Ukraine, because they know very well that that would face massive opposition, you know, of the kind we saw in 2014, on the streets of Kyiv and western and central Ukraine. If the Russians do invade, I think it will only be parts of the east and south of Ukraine, where they at least may hope or may think that they could get a measure of local support. Now, at that point, of course, they would try to recruit local figures to run the local governments for them, but I don’t think in Ukraine as a whole. I also don’t think that if, God forbid, Russia does invade, that Russia will annex more territory. Russia will occupy territory and will then try making a new offer of a deal. But that deal would probably involve a demand for a federal Ukraine with autonomy for all the main Russian-speaking areas. But then, yeah, the Russians would look for local collaborators, but not in Kyiv. That is really beyond rational expectation.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Hartung, you also, like Anatol Lieven, are with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. You have long been an observer of and an activist and advocate around the issue of the militarization of the world and demilitarizing, in many cases. What I just read in the lede about all of the countries sending weapons, the amount, the billions of dollars of weapons that have been sent to Ukraine, can you talk about what’s happening here? I mean, this is a weapons manufacturers’ bonanza. If weapons manufacturers were concerned that the U.S. had pulled out of Afghanistan and what that would mean for them, I mean, their worries must be very much allayed at this point.

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, the U.S. has sent $2.7 billion in military aid and training to Ukraine since 2014. President Biden is talking about a couple hundred million more. And more, no doubt, will follow. So, from the point of view of industry, given that the Pentagon spent $750 billion a year, tens of billions of arms to the Gulf states, that amount itself is not huge. But I think the tensions that are related to all of this, I think, augur for their ability to keep military spending and military procurement high. So there’s kind of a double effect, I would say.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Bill, I wanted to ask you — we’re in a situation now, post-Afghanistan, where now suddenly in the last few weeks the media are filled with dangers of a new war, a potential armed conflict with Russia. We have two U.S. aircraft carriers and assorted other ships in maneuvers in the South China Sea right now and potential problems in terms of China. We’ve got U.S. troops, reported today, battling in Syria against the Islamic State. Is the U.S. military in search of justifying its continued expenditures to the American public right now?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, yes. I mean, the military, part of its job is to perpetuate itself. And I think the biggest issue that they have used is threat inflation related to China. The United States spends three times on its military what China does, has 13 times as many nuclear weapons. Certainly, we don’t want a war between nuclear-armed powers. That’s why I think the U.S. needs a more restrained strategy, not only in Asia but in the Middle East. But certainly this whole notion of great power competition, which is embedded in the current National Defense Strategy, has been used as kind of the magic key to keep Pentagon spending at near-record levels.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me bring Anatol Lieven back into the conversation, the issue of who is questioning this rush to war. You have Fox network, Tucker Carlson, who is saying why — is asking, “Why should the U.S. should side with Ukraine? The U.S. should side with Russia.” And then you’ve got many calling — many of Tucker Carlson’s fans calling Democratic congressmembers, saying, “Stop siding with Ukraine. Side with Russia.” But where are the progressives on this, not about siding with Russia or Ukraine but talking about stopping this rush to war?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, I think that has been one of the great disappointments of recent years in America. And, of course, this goes back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which a great many American progressives unfortunately supported. And I wrote at that time that it was extraordinary that in the debate, such as it was, about the invasion of Iraq, you had all these debates about, you know: Does Iraq in some way resemble Vietnam? Do Iraqi cities resemble Vietnamese jungles? Which it turned out actually they did in many ways. But it was remarkable how few people were asking: How does what America is doing or threatening to do or will do as an occupying force — how is that likely to resemble what America did in Vietnam? And how far do the illusions of universal primacy and of supposedly defending freedom and democracy against its enemies — how is that contributing, in fact, to the militarization of U.S. policy and the undermining of global peace? It was as if, in many ways, the memories of Vietnam had been wiped out.

Now, today, of course, there is also the element that so many progressives have turned violently anti-Russian, partly because of hostility to the behavior of the Putin administration at home, which is indeed often very ugly — I entirely agree with that, I have no affection for that administration — but also because they have, I think, really used Russian influence, which in my view was present but enormously exaggerated, to somehow explain or excuse away the fact that in 2016 such a huge proportion of Americans — not a majority but a huge proportion — voted for Donald Trump and continue to support Donald Trump. That is, of course, a deeply, deeply regrettable fact, but it’s a fact that one has to face and try to understand, and not seek excuses for that by blaming it on other countries.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anatol Lieven, I wanted to ask you — you’ve written about the potential role of France and President Macron in the current crisis regarding Ukraine. Could you talk about that and also the historic role that France has played within the NATO alliance?

ANATOL LIEVEN: Well, you know, as you can hear, I’m a Brit, and therefore, by now, I suppose, a semi-detached kind of European. But I do believe very strongly that in the end, as long as, of course, the basic defense of Western and Central Europe is guaranteed, the security of Europe ought to be principally Europe’s business. I find the way in which the Europeans, on the one hand, of course, constantly whining about America, but, on the other hand, constantly trying to shuffle off their problems onto the shoulders of America, so that America has to act as a shield, while they basically prance around and spend a pittance on their own militaries — I find that quite shameful, to be honest.

And I think if France or if Macron were to essentially adopt the legacy of President Charles de Gaulle and assert that France has a responsibility for the peace of Europe, which means seeking — not surrendering to Russia, not giving in, certainly not abolishing NATO or even withdrawing NATO troops, but seeking a reasonable compromise with Russia, that would be a step towards Europe as a whole taking responsibility for its own security. But I fear that the entire, alas, history of Europe since the end of the Cold War, starting with the disgraceful European failure in Bosnia in the early '90s, suggests that the Europeans will not in fact do that. It's much cheaper for them, apart from anything else. As I say, you know, Denmark sends two planes, parades around its heroic defiance of Russia, while in fact hiding behind the United States. I fear that will continue.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Anatol Lieven, we want to thank you for being with us, senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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