The US State Department announced Sunday evening it would reduce staff levels at the US Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, beginning with the departure of nonessential staff and family members.
State Department officials said that the decision was made out of an “abundance of caution” and that the threat to US personnel in the country has not increased in recent days. Still, the move underscores the fears of a potential Russian invasion, which US officials have warned could be imminent, with tens of thousands of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border.
“On January 23, 2022, the Department of State authorized the voluntary departure of US direct hire employees and ordered the departure of eligible family members from Embassy Kyiv due to the continued threat of Russian military action,” the State Department said in a statement. “US citizens in Ukraine should consider departing now using commercial or other privately available transportation options.”
CNN reported on Friday that the embassy had requested that the State Department take this step as Russia has continued to mass forces and equipment near Ukraine’s borders, sparking fears of a renewed invasion.
The State Department has already issued the highest-level travel advisory for Ukraine, telling Americans not to travel to the country and to be aware of reports that Russia is planning for significant military action.
State Department officials urged Americans to leave the country now, warning that State Department assistance would be “severely impacted” if there is Russian military action in the country.
The officials said they wouldn’t provide evacuation flights yet, urging Americans to take commercial flights now, warning that State Department assistance would be “severely impacted” if there is Russian military action in the country.
The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s latest intelligence assessment, shared with CNN this week, assessed that Russia has now deployed more than 127,000 troops in the region. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week that Russia was in a position to launch an invasion “at any point.”
US officials still don’t know what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans are or whether he has even decided to invade. But some officials who have seen the intelligence say there is evidence that Russia is planning to try to take Kyiv and overthrow the government, as CNN has previously reported.
The UK foreign office said in a statement on Saturday that it has information the Russian government is planning to “install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine.”
US believes Putin ‘could invade at any time’
“It is the totality of the situation that we have been watching and the decision based on this military buildup, based on how we see these developments,” a State Department official on a call with reporters said while explaining why this step was taken now.
“As President Biden has said, military action by Russia could come at any time,” the official said. “If Russia chooses further escalation, then the security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea, in Russian controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice. We are taking this action now because of Russia’s aggressive actions towards Ukraine.”
The official would not comment on specific intelligence reports when asked about the UK government claim that it has information that the Russian government is planning to “install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine.” But the official added that the US has been very clear about Russia’s “attempts to destabilize Ukraine internally” and that these actions are in Russia’s playbook.
Sunday’s action triggered the voluntary departure of non-emergency US government employees, and the department has ordered the departure of family members of US government employees at the US embassy. Essential US embassy personnel will remain in the country, though the department would not say how many officials that amounts to.
The US embassy will continue operating “uninterrupted,” the official said.
The official explained that State Department assistance to US citizens in Ukraine will be “severely impacted” if there is Russian military action in the country.
“We want US citizens in Ukraine to be aware, for their planning purposes, that Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine was severely impacted US embassy’s ability to provide consular services, including assistance to US citizens in departing Ukraine,” the official said. “Our travel advisory update asks all US citizens in Ukraine to complete an online form so that we may better communicate with them. This is especially important if they plan to remain in Ukraine.”
Americans are encouraged to register with State Department when they travel abroad but they are not required to register. As a result, the department said that sharing the information they have would not be useful.
The officials would not say approximately how many US citizens are in Ukraine now. The State Department travel advisory for Ukraine remains at level 4, which means do not travel.
This story has been updated with additional information.