The US defense secretary on Thursday rejected Russian claims on withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border, stating that Moscow has instead directed more troops and equipment to the area.
"Quite the contrary, we see them add to the more than 150,000 troops that they already have on the border," Lloyd Austin told reporters following a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels.
He said that according to their information, Russia had even moved some troops closer to the border.
"We see them fly in more combat and support aircraft. We see them sharpen their readiness in the Black Sea. We even see them stocking up their blood supply from supplies," Austin asserted.
He warned that Russia was pursuing these actions with a reason, and stressed that NATO has to stay vigilant in case Moscow stages false flag operations "where Russia manufacturers a dramatic event to justify an attack that we've seen them run in the past."
Austin also noted that, contrary to Russian President Vladimir Putin's demands on pulling troops back from NATO's eastern flank, the alliance reinforced its presence and has never been "more relevant and more united and more resolute" than it was now.
He welcomed Russia signaling interest in talks and reassured that the US would be a good partner in negotiations.
Austin stressed that "there's still time and space for diplomacy to work," but warned Putin that in case he decides to invade Ukraine, "it will be clear to the entire world that he started a war with diplomatic options left on the table."
On Tuesday, Russia announced that some of its troops in the western and southern military districts have started returning to garrisons but according to the Biden administration, it directed another 7,000 soldiers to the area.
The US, with its European allies, has been warning since last November that Russia is preparing for aggression against Ukraine after having amassed over 100,000 troops and heavy equipment in and around its neighbor.
Russia has denied it is preparing to invade and accused the Western countries of undermining its security through NATO's expansion towards its borders.