Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is preparing to embark Tuesday on a trip to Europe that may very well end up coinciding with Russia’s latest incursion into Ukraine.
He will head first to Brussels for a NATO defense ministers meeting before stopping by Poland and Lithuania, both to meet with leaders there and to spend some time with U.S. troops deployed to those countries.
In Poland, Austin plans to visit troops at an air base near Powidz, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “to tour the facilities there and to observe the conditions of our rotational presence.
Separately, Kirby added, Austin plans to meet with his Baltic country counterparts, as well as with “some U.S. service members that are there in Lithuania,” who are in the country as part of a regular training rotation with Lithuanian troops.
Austin in recent weeks has ordered 4,700 members of the 82nd Airborne Division to deploy to Poland as a show of support. Additionally, 300 soldiers from the XVIII Airborne Corps have made their way to Germany, while 1,000 soldiers from the Germany-based 2nd Cavalry Regiment are set up in Romania.
None of those troops are poised to respond to a Russian incursion, though Kirby told reporters on Wednesday that 82nd Airborne troops could support American evacuees fleeing Ukraine into Poland.
The travel announcement comes as confusion arose over a statement Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy made Monday on Facebook that he was “told” Russia would invade on Wednesday.
“The president referred to a date that was spread by the media,” Sergii Nykyforov, Zelenskyy’s spokesman, later told NBC News.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told CBS News on Sunday that Russia’s build-up along the Ukrainian border is such that “they could launch a military action essentially at any time,” he said.
Responding to whether Russia moving into Ukraine would derail Austin’s trip, Kirby told Military Times, “We’ll have to see, obviously, how things play out.”
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT