All-out conflict is looming between Russia and Ukraine

And it might drag the U.S. into another far-away fight.

AVDIIVKA, UKRAINE - JANUARY 24: Ukrainian servicemen from the 25th Air Assault Battalion are seen st...
Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

With an estimated 100,000 Russian troops massing at that country’s western border with Ukraine, all eyes are on Eastern Europe ahead of what is increasingly looking like the precursor to an invasion of the former Soviet Republic into its one-time vassal state.

While it remains to be seen whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will actually push ahead with moving into Ukraine — or, as has been alleged, installing a pro-Kremlin puppet to lead the Ukrainian government — the Biden administration has reportedly begun assessing its options to increase the American military presence in Eastern Europe as a potential bulwark against what feels increasingly like a throwback to Cold War posturing between the two superpowers.

According senior Defense Department officials who spoke anonymously with The New York Times this week, the Pentagon has begun briefing President Biden on potential troop deployments of up to 5,000 soldiers to neighboring countries — although not Ukraine itself — with an additional capacity to increase that number by an order of magnitude should Russia push ahead with an invasion. According to the officials, any possible troop deployment would be backed by heavy American military infrastructure, including warships and aircraft. Last week, the U.S. Embassy in Kiev tweeted the arrival of 200,000 pounds of “lethal aid” (which is to say, weapons and associated machinery) for “the front line defenders of Ukraine” as part of the U.S. “commitment to helping Ukraine bolster its defenses in the face of growing Russian aggression.”

At the same time, in a sign of just how seriously the White House takes the threat of a Russian invasion, the State Department ordered family members of the U.S. diplomatic corps in Kiev to leave the country “out of an abundance of caution due to continued Russian efforts to destabilize the country and undermine the security of Ukrainian citizens and others visiting or residing in Ukraine.”

That the United States is signaling both the possibility of a Russian invasion, and the need for potential American intervention, is a significant about-face for the Biden administration, which has been thus far focusing on diplomatic efforts to head off a potential war in Eastern Europe, and which is still reeling from the haphazard U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year.

Russia has long seen Ukraine as a potential foothold into Eastern Europe, having invaded and annexed the Crimean region of Ukraine in 2014. Putin has also unofficially supported sporadic low-grade fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian nationalists since then.

Speaking on NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken put the prospect of a renewed shooting war between Ukraine, Russia, and possibly even the United States in stark terms.

“We are not sitting still. Even as we are engaged in diplomacy we are building up defense,” he said. “There will be massive consequences for Russia if it invades Ukraine again. Ultimately, we’ve given Russia two paths. It has to choose.”