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U.S. sending troops to Eastern Europe as Russia masses forces near Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After discussing the move for some days, the United States is pushing some troops forward in Europe. The Pentagon says these forces will move into eastern European countries that are NATO allies close to but not inside Ukraine. Over 100,000 Russian troops are stationed near Ukraine as Russian President Vladimir Putin presses the Western allies over their role and his role in that former Soviet republic. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: Which troops are moving in from where?

BOWMAN: Well, the Pentagon announced this morning that some 2,000 troops from the U.S. will deploy to Germany and Poland. They're from Fort Bragg, N.C., elements of the 82nd Airborne and the 18th Airborne corps headquarters. And another 1,000 American troops, Steve, already in Germany will head to Romania in the coming days. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the troops are meant to reinforce these NATO allies. And it's a robust defense. And it's not escalatory, he said. The U.S. is doing this on its own, Kirby said, and not through NATO. There are another 8,500 troops in the U.S. on high alert to be part of a NATO response force. But they have not yet been ordered to deploy.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's very interesting. The U.S. is doing it on its own and not in coordination with NATO allies. Although, of course, we're talking about moving forces forward into NATO countries. And I guess we should underline - this is a small deployment. You're describing a few thousand troops. They would not contemplate combat at any time with Russia's 100,000. But they're there as a kind of - what? - tripwire in case Russians went the wrong direction.

BOWMAN: Yeah. Right. You know, we're not - they're not really doing anything practical other than to reinforce U.S. troops and allied forces there. There are already some American troops in Poland, about 4,000, and hundreds more in Romania. There is no practical military reason here, Steve. This is not a combat deployment or even a training mission. And no troops will head into Ukraine. President Biden already has ruled that out. This is all political messaging. The hope is that this will force Putin to back down by displaying a strong NATO. But there is some concern, Steve, that such troop movements Putin will see as provocative and maybe make an invasion of Ukraine more likely because this is precisely what he worries about, further NATO expansion on his western border. He could see this as a pretext to go in.

INSKEEP: And of course, that is what one of the Russian demands was. Although, it's a demand the U.S. and the West have said is a non-starter, as he actually wants U.S. and other NATO forces out of those Eastern European countries. What is the state of the Russian forces now, as best you can tell?

BOWMAN: Well, officials say Putin continues to move forces in and around the Ukrainian border on three sides, more into Belarus, to Ukraine's north, as part of a planned military exercise in the coming days. So more than 100,000. And that number could ramp up to 175,000. And there are also more Russian ships in the Mediterranean. They could head into the Black Sea. There is growing concern in Washington of a massive invasion anytime between the middle of this month or sometime later in March.

INSKEEP: What, if any, is the way that American forces would be drawn directly into this conflict?

BOWMAN: Well, only if, you know, Russian forces move into the NATO countries, you know, Romania and Poland. That - Putin has said nothing about doing anything that foolish, frankly. He wants to take Ukraine. He said Russia and Ukraine are one. But clearly, there's a big concern about a humanitarian catastrophe, you know, deaths of civilians, the Ukrainian military deaths - and then also, a, potentially, humanitarian crisis, with refugees fleeing from any fighting into Poland and, likely, Romania.

INSKEEP: OK. Again, a small number of U.S. troops - a few thousand - are moving into Eastern Europe. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, thanks so much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.