The US will send air and ground forces to back NATO’s eastern flank, a senior defense official said Tuesday amid the threat of a further Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The force, ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, will move within the US European Command (EUCOM) area of operations to NATO’s northeastern and southeastern flanks in coming days and are expected to be in place later this week.

The official said an infantry battalion task force of approximately 800 personnel will be moved from Italy and a battalion of attack aviation — 20 AH-64 helicopters — from Germany to the Baltic region.

In addition, up to eight F-35 fighter jets will be deployed from Germany to several operating locations along NATO’s eastern flank. And an attack aviation task force — 12 AH-64 helicopters – will move from Greece to Poland, according to the official.

“These additional personnel are being repositioned to reassure our NATO allies, deter any potential aggression against NATO member states, and train with host-nation forces,” said the official.

The US has more than 90,000 troops already in Europe on rotational and permanent orders.

After a speech late Monday saying Russia would recognize as independent the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, Putin announced that Moscow would send troops to those areas to “maintain peace.”

The announcements drew widespread global condemnation as violations of the UN Charter and international law, with Western countries vowing to impose harsh new sanctions.

In 2014, after invading Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Moscow began to support separatist forces in eastern Ukraine against the central government — a policy it has maintained for the past seven years. The conflict has taken more than 13,000 lives, according to the UN.

Since the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, Turkic Tatars have reported persecution by Russian authorities.

The latest moves follow Russia amassing more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, with Western countries saying the buildup is the prelude to an invasion, a charge Russia denies.

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