Washington got those assurances that the Russian troop buildup was only an exercise from Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu a week ago. But no one in the U.S. government knows if Putin agrees — or if the Russian leader has changed his mind as the West has debated what level of economic and political sanctions might be imposed if Moscow takes an additional chunk of Ukraine beyond Crimea. “They made it clear that their intent was to do exercises and not to cross the border,” Kirby said. “Our expectation is they’re going to live up to that word.
There is no plan to involve the U.S. military in what is happening in Ukraine, even if Russia takes more territory. Ukraine borders Russia, and Ukraine does not belong to NATO, where an attack on one member is deemed to be an attack on all.
“Should the Russians continue to move aggressively in that region and in the Ukraine, what does that mean—and NATO would have to respond, for example—what would that mean for the United States Army?” Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, asked the Army’s top officer Thursday.
Pentagon officials say they believe there could be close to 50,000 Russian troops bordering the former Soviet republic and inside Crimea, recently seized and annexed by Moscow. That estimate is double earlier assessments, and means Russian President Vladimir Putin could order a lighting strike into Ukrainian territory with the forces already in place. The higher troop count was first reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Despite Russian reassurances that Moscow’s troop buildup along Ukraine’s eastern frontier is for a military exercise, its growing scale is making U.S. officials nervous about its ultimate aim.
President Barack Obama on Friday urged Russia to stop “intimidating” Ukraine and to pull its troops back to “de-escalate the situation.” He told CBS that the troop buildup may “be an effort to intimidate Ukraine, or it may be that [Russia has] additional plans.”