Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is traveling to eastern Europe this week, where he will reportedly tell countries on the "the front lines of Russian aggression" - in particular Ukraine and Georgia - that there is an "open door to NATO", according to a senior defense official quoted in The Washington Times.
His trip will take him to both countries, after which he'll go to Romania and on to Belgium to participate in a meeting of NATO defense ministers. "We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression," the unnamed senior US official said further.
Both Ukraine and Georgia have have seen recent border conflicts and tensions flair up with their large, more powerful neighbor - including the Russo-Georgia War of 2008 centered on the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
"Against that backdrop, defense officials said Mr. Austin will tell Ukrainian and Georgian leaders that there is an open door to NATO membership and that each country should take steps to qualify for membership," the Washington Times continues.
As for Ukraine, which earlier this year saw President Volodymyr Zelensky provocatively declare that "NATO membership is the only way to end war in Donbass", Austin is expected to underscore "unwavering support" - according to a DOD announcement of the official trip:
In Ukraine, the Secretary will meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Minister of Defense Andrii Taran to reaffirm our unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The visit will also serve as an opportunity to discuss Ukraine’s progress with the implementation of defense and defense industry reforms needed to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations as well as regional cooperation among Black Sea allies and partners.
Meanwhile, just before Austin's arrival in the region, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov took the opportunity to restate Russia's "red line" in an interview with a French TV channel, saying "Ukraine’s accession to NATO would be the worst-case scenario" for which Moscow would respond with necessary "active measures".
"This is a scenario that goes beyond the red lines of Russia’s national interests. This is a scenario that could force Russia to take active measures to ensure its own security," Peskov said. And addressing accusations earlier in the year of Russia threatening Ukraine's sovereignty via a major troop build-up, he pointed out that "before the Russian troops were moved to that region, there were large NATO exercises held near the Russian border. Everyone talks about the concentration of Russian troops all the time, but nobody talks about the concentration of NATO troops."
Austin's trip comes on the heels of a rare visit to Russia of Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, where a US delegation said productive talks were had with the Russian side toward restoring deteriorated communications with Washington.