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US puts 8,500 troops on alert as Nato leaders meet over Ukraine

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The US has placed about 8,500 troops on standby for possible deployment to central and eastern Europe to shore up Nato’s defences as western leaders pledged to form a united front against the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The Pentagon’s announcement that it was prepared to move additional personnel to Nato’s eastern flank came as the US and its allies hardened their response to Russia’s build-up of forces along the Ukrainian border.

“At the direction of the president and following recommendations made by secretary [Lloyd] Austin, the United States has taken steps to heighten the readiness of its forces at home and abroad,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson.

“They are prepared to respond to a range of contingencies, including support to the Nato Response Force, if it is activated,” he added.

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The step was announced just before president Joe Biden held a wide-ranging video conference call from the White House situation room with European leaders that lasted an hour and 20 minutes. The conversation covered both diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis and punitive actions against Moscow in the event of an attack on Ukraine.

“The leaders underscored their shared desire for a diplomatic resolution to the current tensions and reviewed recent engagements with Russia in multiple formats,” the White House said in a statement.

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“The leaders also discussed their joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including preparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions as well as to reinforce security on Nato’s eastern flank,” it added.

A Downing Street spokesperson said allies agreed to “swift retributive responses including an unprecedented package of sanctions”, while an EU official said the leaders pledged “full transatlantic unity”.

During his briefing with reporters, the Pentagon’s Kirby said no decision had yet been made on whether to deploy additional US troops to the region, but he noted they would now be ready within five days instead of 10. The multinational Nato response force, if activated, would involve the deployment of up to 40,000 personnel.

The White House call involved Boris Johnson, UK prime minister; Olaf Scholz, German chancellor; Emmanuel Macron, French president; Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president; and Mario Draghi, Italian prime minister, as well as EU leaders and the Nato secretary-general.

The virtual meeting of western leaders follows days of escalating warnings that an invasion by Russia could be imminent, including a British alert that Moscow was plotting to install a pro-Kremlin puppet government in Ukraine.

In an ominous statement, Johnson said on Monday that there was evidence of Russian plans “for a lightning war that could take out” the Ukrainian capital, which would be “painful, violent and bloody business” for Moscow. “I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya,” he said.

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Britain on Monday ordered a number of its embassy staff and family members to leave Ukraine. The move came after the US on Sunday told family members of its embassy staff to leave Kyiv because of the risk of “significant military action” by Russia.

Despite the growing drumbeat of military conflict, western diplomats have continued to stress that a diplomatic solution is still a possibility and the preferred option. Antony Blinken, secretary of state, said the US would send written responses to Russian demands in the coming days, which could ease tensions and provide the basis for a settlement. Ned Price, the spokesperson for the state department, said Blinken was discussing the response with allies and “incorporating that feedback into the written response”.

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Washington, Laura Hughes in London, Valentina Pop and Henry Foy in Brussels, Guy Chazan in Berlin and Victor Mallet in Paris

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