U.S. weighs more troops to eastern Europe beyond 8,500 on alert

A 436th Aerial Port Squadron ramp services Airman stages a cargo loader with palletised ammunition, weapons and other equipment bound for Ukraine during a foreign military sales mission at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, U.S., January 24, 2022. U.S. Air Force photo/Roland Balik/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON, Jan 31 (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Monday it is in active discussions with Eastern European allies about possible U.S. troop deployments to NATO's eastern flank, as Washington moves to reassure jittery NATO allies in the face of a Russian military buildup near Ukraine.

Any decisions on new troop movements would be separate from the some 8,500 forces in the United States who were put on alert last week to potentially bolster a NATO rapid response force, the Pentagon said, adding context to President Joe Biden's comments on Friday about potential near-term deployments to Eastern Europe.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the troops that Biden was referring on Friday to could potentially be redeployed from within Europe.

"We're going through the rigorous work of providing options for the commander in chief should he decide to do that ... in close consultation with the actual allies themselves," Kirby said.

Separately, the U.S. military last week put about 8,500 troops inside the United States on alert to be ready to deploy to Europe, largely to fill the ranks of a NATO rapid response force should the alliance call them up for duty.

Russia denies planning an invasion. But, having engineered the ongoing crisis by surrounding Ukraine with forces from the north, east and south, Moscow is now citing the Western response as evidence to support its narrative that Russia is the target, not the instigator, of aggression.

Russia, which seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backs pro-Russian rebels fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine, is demanding sweeping security guarantees including a promise NATO never admit Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to speak by phone with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday, a State Department spokesperson said.

Biden stressed diplomatic efforts aimed at averting a conflict.

"We continue to engage in nonstop diplomacy and to de-escalate tensions," Biden told reporters in the Oval Office.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Sandra Maler

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Phil Stewart has reported from more than 60 countries, including Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and South Sudan. An award-winning Washington-based national security reporter, Phil has appeared on NPR, PBS NewsHour, Fox News and other programs and moderated national security events, including at the Reagan National Defense Forum and the German Marshall Fund. He is a recipient of the Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence and the Joe Galloway Award.