U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley (R) hold a news briefing at the Pentagon on January 28, 2022.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (L) and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley (R) hold a news briefing at the Pentagon on January 28, 2022. Getty Images / Alex Wong

‘Stand Down,’ Milley Warns Russia

Joint Chiefs chairman issues warning as Defense Secretary Austin says, "Conflict is not inevitable."

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley pressed the U.S. position Friday that the Russian-Ukrainian crisis could still be solved without war breaking out, even as thousands of U.S. troops have been put on high alert and Russia has primed its own forces for invasion. 

“Conflict is not inevitable. There's still time and space for diplomacy,” Austin said in a rare joint press conference at the Pentagon with Milley, President Joe Biden’s senior military advisor. 

For weeks the White House and State Department have expressed a desire to reach a diplomatic resolution to the current crisis, where Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed more than 100,000 forces along Ukraine’s Eastern and Northern borders. Putin has sought a moratorium on Ukraine joining NATO; NATO has maintained an open door policy to new members, which has driven talk that war is imminent. 

“We strongly encourage Russia to stand down and to pursue a resolution through diplomacy,” Milley said. 

U.S. troops have been put on alert, but they haven’t been moved forward. Austin said the United States is sensitive to how massive troop movements could potentially further inflame the situation. 

“Any time that we think about troop movements…we always consider the impact that that's going to have on leaders’ minds, and in their decision-making,” Austin said. 

The 8,500 forces from rapid deployment units in Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, and Fort Campbell, in Kentucky, to medical, aviation, and logistics support from bases across the U.S., would not deploy to Ukraine. Instead, they would be located in “Eastern Flank” NATO member countries: Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. 

“We certainly have no intent whatsoever. that I'm aware of, of putting our offensive forces to attack Russia and I don't think that's NATO's intent at all,” Milley said. 

Milley said any conflict would cause significant casualties on both sides. While Russia has 100,000 troops on the border, Ukraine’s 150,000-strong military has benefitted from continued training and equipment from western countries. Just in the last few weeks, planeloads of anti-tank and other weapons have flowed into the country, including on Friday, Austin said. 

While Austin and Milley stressed that the troops would reassure NATO allies and help defend them if necessary, they did not answer whether U.S. service members could end up engaging with Russian forces if Russia advanced on a NATO country. Nor did they say whether U.S. military airlift would be used in an evacuation of Kviv. 

There is still potential ground for Putin to get enough of a diplomatic win to de-escalate, said Rajan Menon, director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities and a senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Diplomatic concessions with NATO will have to be substantial, but not so much that Putin becomes politically vulnerable in Russia. 

“Some of this is Putin saying, ‘You know, we matter as a country, and you can't do in the European security order whatever you want, pretending that we don't exist,’” Menon said. 

But Putin is unlikely to de-escalate without a significant concession, Menon said. 

“He won't just say, ‘I staged this 110,000 military person military exercise and brought all these fearsome weapons from as far away as the far eastern military district, but I'm gonna take my toys and go home now,’” Menon said. “I have a really hard time seeing that outcome.”