Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin addressed reports of Ukraine and Russian-backed rebels accusing each other of violating a cease-fire after a shelling incident Thursday, stating that the U.S. is monitoring the situation.
At a NATO news conference Thursday morning, Austin said he has been concerned that Russia might try to stage a false flag operation as an excuse to invade Ukraine, but that the U.S. is not jumping to any conclusions at this time.
“We’ve seen the reports of the shelling … and they’re certainly troubling. We’re still gathering the details, but we’ve said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict, so we’ll be watching this very closely,” Austin said.
Austin also addressed Russia‘s claim that they are pulling troops back from the Ukrainian border, stating not only is this false, but that the Kremlin is continuing to take measures that indicate they are preparing for offensive action against the neighboring country.
“The Russians say they are withdrawing some of those forces, now that exercises are complete. But we don’t see that Quite the contrary, we see them add to the more than 150,000 troops they already have arrayed along that border … even in the last couple days,” Austin said.
The secretary pointed to Russian troops getting closer to the border, additional combat and support aircrafts flying in, activity in the Black Sea, and an increase in blood supplies as evidence that Russia is not withdrawing.
“I was a soldier myself not that long ago, and I know firsthand that you don’t do these sorts of things for no reason. And you certainly don’t do them if you’re getting ready to pack up and go home,” Austin said.
Austin also addressed a recent cyberattack against Ukraine, and while he would not confirm whether or not Putin was behind it, he did say the move was “a play taken right out of his playbook.”
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Despite all this, Austin said that “there is nothing inevitable about this looming conflict,” which he said “can still be averted.”
Austin repeated President Biden’s recent message that the U.S. is prepared to “defend every inch of NATO territory” if necessary, but he also made clear that they are prepared to talk to Putin and find a peaceful way to avoid conflict.
“Of course, one thing Mr. Putin that says he wants to do is to engage in more dialogue. And as we have said all along, we would welcome that. We believe there is still time and space for diplomacy to work, and we are in lockstep with our allies and partners towards that end,” Austin said. “A peaceful outcome that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity represents the best outcome – for Ukraine, to be sure, but also for Russia and for the Russian people.”
Austin said that if Putin “serious” about a peaceful resolution, “he will find in the United States and in this Alliance no better or more serious interlocutor.”
If the Russian leader is not serious about diplomacy, Austin warned, “it will be clear to the entire world that he started a war with diplomatic options left on the table,” and Putin “will bear the responsibility for the suffering and the immense sacrifice that ensues.”