Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin conceded Friday that there is still the possibility that U.S. troops could find themselves face to face with Russian troops — although he stressed that there was still time to work within the diplomatic space as well.
Austin gave a briefing on the escalating tensions — not just between Russia and Ukraine, but between Russia and the United States as well — alongside Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley, and he said that the primary goal was to continue to pursue diplomacy.
.@SecDef Lloyd Austin: “Conflict is not inevitable. There is still time and space for diplomacy. The United States in lockstep with our allies and partners has offered Russia a path away from crisis and toward greater security.” pic.twitter.com/kDR4J806zy
— CSPAN (@cspan) January 28, 2022
One reporter asked about the U.S. troops who had already been put on alert for possible deployment, apparently referencing the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan when she asked, “How do you know when you are done? You don’t send troops unless you have an exit strategy.”
She went on to ask what it would take for U.S. officials to “trust Putin” and just how much damage — particularly to civilian population centers in Ukraine — would be done if Russia did embark on a full-scale military invasion.
Austin replied first, saying that the American troops already in the region — and those preparing to potentially join them — were there to reassure allies that the United States was prepared to come to their aid.
“We are focused on NATO, we are focused on reassuring our allies and that’s what this is all about. In terms of trusting Putin, I don’t think this is about trusting Putin. This is about our allies trusting us,” Austin continued. “And so that’s really what we are focused on and we, you know, Mr. Putin at some point in time will reveal what he’s thinking, but again, I’m not sure that he’s made final decisions on what he’s going to do yet.”
Milley jumped in then, adding, “Let me first say that as the Secretary said up front, we don’t think final decisions have been made to conduct any sort of offensive operation into Ukraine by the Russians, and we firmly believe there is still room for diplomatic outcome here. Having said that, given the type of forces that are arrayed, the ground maneuver forces, artillery, ballistic missiles, the air forces, all packaged together, if it was unleashed on Ukraine it would be significant, very significant, and would result in a significant amount of casualties and you can imagine what that might look like in dense urban areas along roads and so on and so forth. It would be horrific, it would be terrible and it’s not necessary and we think a diplomatic outcome is the way to go here.”
The reporter pressed again asking directly whether or not the conflict could put American troops on the ground, face to face with Russian troops.
“Can you keep U.S. forces from having to deal with Russian forces directly, if you are reinforcing eastern Europe, for example. Will U.N. forces be in missions against Russian forces, can you keep them away from Russian forces?” she asked.
“Again, our presence here helps to reassure our partners in the front line countries there, and you know, Barb, that we have an Article 5 commitment to our NATO partners, and so if Putin were to attack one of those countries, then of course that commitment – that’s an ironclad commitment, the president has said a number of times we will live up to that commitment, and so – but again, our focus is not on fighting in Ukraine, it’s on reassuring our NATO partners and allies,” Austin replied.