US ‘Very Concerned’ About Russian Military Moves Near Ukraine, Austin Says

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pauses while speaking
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

SIMI VALLEY, CALIF. -- U.S. officials are "very concerned" about Russia's massing of troops near the Ukrainian border, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Saturday.

Austin's comments at the Reagan National Defense Forum come amid reports that U.S. intelligence has found Russia is planning a military offensive for early 2022 that could include as many as 175,000 troops.

"As we look at the numbers of forces that are in the border region, as we look at some of the things that are occurring in the information space, as we look at what's going on in the cyber domain, it really raises our concern," Austin said. "It's something that we're gonna remain focused on going forward."

U.S. and NATO officials have been issuing increasingly stark warnings in recent weeks as Russia builds up forces near its border with Ukraine, which it invaded in 2014.

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Russia also concentrated thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine in the spring, raising alarms in the international community of the possibility of an invasion. Russia insisted those troops were conducting routine exercises and eventually pulled many of them back, but U.S. officials fear the latest deployments are more than a bluff.

Ukrainian officials have said about 115,000 Russian troops are amassed near the border, while U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville on Saturday estimated the number is "somewhere around 95,000 to 100,000."

"I don't know what they're going to do, but I'm very, very concerned about their posture," McConville said during a morning panel at the Reagan forum. "That gives a lot of options to the Russians."

President Joe Biden himself vowed Friday to make it "very, very difficult" for Russia to invade Ukraine.

"What I am doing is putting together what I believe to be will be the most comprehensive and meaningful set of initiatives to make it very, very difficult for Mr. Putin to go ahead and do what people are worried he may do," said Biden, who is scheduled to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

Pressed Saturday on what specifically the United States will do, including whether it will send military advisers and weapons to Ukraine, Austin would only refer back to Biden's comments.

"You heard the president say yesterday that he's looking at a number of initiatives, so I won't get out ahead of my boss," Austin told Fox News host Brett Baier, who interviewed Austin at the conference.

Russia isn't alone in its provocative posturing, as Austin described alarm at increasingly aggressive Chinese military exercises near Taiwan. China set a record in October with 56 military flights around Taiwan in one day, part of a total 149 flights over four days.

While he said he did not want to speculate, Austin said the Chinese activity "looks a lot like rehearsals" for an attack.

Austin also reiterated that the United States is committed to helping Taiwan defend itself and said officials are looking at ways to do more to support Taipei. But he also stressed that U.S. policy -- which is intentionally ambiguous about whether the U.S. military would actually intervene if China tries to invade Taiwan -- has not changed.

"Nobody wants to see things develop into a conflict in this region," Austin said. "So we're going to do everything in our power to help prevent conflict and dial down the temperature whenever possible."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: US Intelligence Finds Russia Planning Ukraine Offensive

 

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