STUTTGART, Germany — Rising concerns that Moscow is poised to launch an invasion into Ukraine are well-grounded because Russian troops are continuing to mass along the volatile border between the two countries, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday.
“There is no question that Russia continues to build up on the border. They are putting more troops on that border, more heavy military equipment on that border. Those are not good signs,” Hagel said. “They’re dangerous. They’re provocative. They’re irresponsible. And this needs to stop.”
Hagel, who met Wednesday with U.S. European Command chief Gen. Philip Breedlove at his headquarters in Stuttgart, said the U.S. continues to monitor the crisis in Ukraine, which in recent days has shown signs of a dramatic escalation.
Officials at NATO have also voiced increased concern that Russia could order troops into Ukraine under the auspices of a peace mission.
“We’re not going to guess what’s on Russia’s mind, but we can see what Russia is doing on the ground — and that is of great concern. Russia has amassed around 20,000 combat-ready troops on Ukraine’s eastern border,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told French television.
Also on Thursday, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk echoed those fears when he stated “the threat of a direct intervention by Russia into Ukraine is greater than it was a few days or a couple of weeks ago” as some 20,000 troops line up near Ukraine.
Hagel, responding to a question about the Polish prime minister’s concerns, said “Of course it is a reality and a threat and a possibility.”
Moscow has in the past repeatedly denied that it plans to invade Ukraine.
Hagel’s visit to Stuttgart was the first in a series of stops that also include meetings with defense officials in India and Australia, where he will discuss military cooperation with those nations.
In the case of Europe, NATO finds itself at a crossroads, Hagel said. At the coming alliance summit in Wales, NATO must restructure itself into a more responsive military force, one that takes into account the crisis in Ukraine and Russian aggression in the region, Hagel said.
“Russian action around Ukraine “is forcing us to take a look at the relevancy of NATO and how well it is structured and prepared,” he said.
One area of focus is the NATO Response Force, which includes several thousand troops from member nations. Breedlove, who serves as NATO’s supreme allied commander, has repeatedly stated that the alliance must bolster the capabilities of its rapid-reaction force, which in the past has mainly been used for exercises. The force must be reformed to respond more quickly to crises, Breedlove has said.
Other measures in the works include forward positioning military equipment closer to potential hot spots and maintaining a more regular U.S. and NATO rotational force in the region.
EUCOM has crafted plans to increase exercises across eastern Europe in connection with the so-called European Reassurance Initiative. If Congress approves the $1 billion measure, the funds will enable the military to rotate a heavy brigade through Europe for additional training as well as to improve infrastructure supporting those and other troops, a defense official said.
Also, the U.S. is moving forward with its previously delayed Rapid Trident exercise in Ukraine, which had initially been slated to occur this summer. Troops from the Vicenza, Italy-based 173rd Airborne Brigade will be taking part in the exercise, which includes about 12 nations and is set to start Sept. 15.
During a brief question-and-answer session with troops in Stuttgart, Hagel addressed concerns about the downsizing of the force, which continues to shrink in the face of a budget crunch and the end of combat operations in Afghanistan.
When asked if the many crises around the world — stretching from Ukraine and Syria to Iraq — have given the Pentagon pause, Hagel offered few reassurances.
“The reality is we have a finite set of resources and we’re going to have to prioritize,” Hagel said.