By Caitlin Doornbos
WASHINGTON — A State Department official said Tuesday that an invasion of Ukraine could take place on its northern border with Belarus after Russian troops were transferred to the country for military exercises.
The news comes as Russia has spent weeks moving troops to its western border with Ukraine. President Joe Biden’s administration has been in talks with Russian officials, who want a guarantee that Ukraine can never join the NATO alliance. US officials say diplomatic attempts to end hostilities have not been productive.
“Reports of Russian troop movements towards Belarus… are concerning,” the State Department official told reporters Tuesday on condition of anonymity. “The timing is remarkable and of course raises concerns that Russia may intend to station troops in Belarus … to potentially attack Ukraine from the north.”
Pentagon chief spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday that the Defense Department is still waiting for a diplomatic resolution, but defense officials have gone through “various permutations” on how to get involved if Russia invades Ukraine.
“If there is another incursion into Ukraine, and if our NATO allies request capabilities, support and resources for their security, as part of NATO, we will be positively willing to consider those requests,” Kirby said.
The State Department official did not say how many Russian troops and equipment were entering Belarus, but said they were being conducted “allegedly under the auspices of regularly scheduled joint military exercises.”
“Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has increasingly relied on Russia for all kinds of support, and we know that Putin does not give them support for free,” the official said.
Last week, the US was willing to discuss changing the “scale and scope” of US exercises in the region “if and only if there was reciprocity on the Russian side,” Kirby said Tuesday. However, the US saw no sign of a reduction from Russia.
The US has not sent troops to Ukraine to help against a possible Russian attack, Kirby said, although more than 100 Florida National Guard troops are now in the country on an advisory and assistance mission to help train Ukrainian troops.
“They continue to work alongside their Ukrainian counterparts… and we hope that this mission continues,” he said. “We will continue to observe the situation on the ground, and if we need to make decisions for force protection purposes, we will.”
For now, Kirby said there are no planned changes to the National Guard’s mission or the number of US troops in Ukraine.
The State Department official said the Russian troop movement was especially worrying given that a Belarusian constitutional referendum in February “includes language that could be interpreted as paving the way for Russia to garrison forces on Belarusian territory.”
“These draft constitutional changes may indicate Belarusian plans to allow Russian conventional and nuclear forces to be stationed in this territory,” the official said. “This would be a significant change for Belarus and such a step would pose the challenge to European security that may require a response.”
TRANSLATION AND ADAPTATION: DAN
SOURCE: Star and Stripes