Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a group of US warships to keep their position in the Mediterranean Sea amid growing tensions between Ukraine and Russia, according to multiple reports.
A defense official told The Hill this week that Austin ordered the USS Harry Truman Carrier Strike Group to stay in the European Command area of operations instead of moving to the Central Command theater, which includes northeast Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
According to the official, the move “reflects the need for a persistent presence in Europe and is necessary to reassure our allies and partners of our commitment to collective defense.”
The Truman strike group departed from the US on Dec. 1 for a regularly scheduled deployment and has been in the Mediterranean Sea since.
The group includes the aircraft carrier USS Harry Truman, the cruiser USS San Jacinto, and guided-missile destroyers USS Bainbridge, USS Cole, USS Gravely, and USS Jason Dunham. The ships recently completed multiple tactical operations with the Tunisian navy, according to the report.
Austin’s reported order did not specifically mention Russia or Ukraine. However, it comes after weeks of tension in Eastern Europe at the prospect of an invasion by Moscow.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin demanded the US and its European allies ensure Ukraine will not be permitted to join NATO. At the same time, Russian military forces have massed on the Ukraine border, raising fears of military action similar to the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Some have estimated that up to 175,000 troops sit on the frontier, along with Russian heavy equipment.
Russia has also called on the US and NATO to promise that they will not place troops or send missile systems into Ukraine. While no guarantees have been made, the US and other allies scheduled talks with Russian officials for next month.
Earlier this month, President Biden held a virtual meeting with Putin, during which Biden emphasized that any further incursion into Ukraine by Russia would be met with “strong economic measures” from the US and its European allies.
At one point, national security adviser Jake Sullivan later claimed, Biden “looked President Putin in the eye and told him today that things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now.”
If the US and NATO decline to provide security guarantees, Putin has said Russia’s response “may vary.”
“It will depend on the proposals that our military experts will make to me,” he told Rossiya 1 television on Sunday.
Russia has repeatedly claimed it does not intend to invade Ukraine, despite the continuous buildup of forces along the border.