The United States has moved some US forces out of Ukraine and ordered the evacuation of most of its embassy staff on Saturday as fears mount that a Russian invasion of the country could take place in the next few days.
The moves are signs of growing concerns among US officials about the safety of Americans in Ukraine.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered members of the Florida National Guard out of Ukraine, repositioning them “elsewhere in Europe,” according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. The 160 soldiers have been in Ukraine since November on a training mission.
“They are departing Ukraine and will reposition elsewhere in Europe. The Secretary made this decision out of an abundance of caution — with the safety and security of our personnel foremost in mind — and informed by the State Department’s guidance on U.S. personnel in Ukraine,” Kirby said in a statement.
The Pentagon is still supporting Ukraine’s military, despite this order.
“This repositioning does not signify a change in our determination to support Ukraine’s Armed Forces, but will provide flexibility in assuring allies and deterring aggression,” Kirby said.
A travel advisory issued by the State Department on Saturday said it had “ordered the departure of most US direct hire employees from Embassy Kyiv due to the continued threat of Russian military action.”
It also stated that consular services would be suspended but stressed a small diplomatic presence would be maintained in the city of Lviv in the west of the country, about 50 miles from the Polish border, to handle emergencies.
Several countries are also downgrading their diplomatic presence and urging their citizens to leave Ukraine.
A senior State Department official said during a call with reporters Saturday morning that it’s past time for US citizens to leave Ukraine because there are limits to what the US can do to assist them in a war zone, which is “inherently volatile” and “extremely dangerous.”
“Once a country or region becomes an active conflict zone we have very little ability to help our fellow citizens,” the official said.
The State Department announcement came ahead of a call on Saturday between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin as American officials increased the urgency of their warnings that Moscow may be about to invade.
Ahead of that call, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and discussed “acute and shared concerns that Russia may be considering launching further military aggression against Ukraine in the coming days,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Saturday.
Blinken tweeted that he “reiterated that further Russian aggression would be met with a resolute, massive, and united Transatlantic response.”
Blinken also “emphasized the priority that we place on safety of American citizens, diplomatic personnel and our embassy facility,” another senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Blinken on Saturday.
Lavrov again “denied that Russia has any intention to invade Ukraine,” the official said.
On Friday, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan warned a Russian assault on Ukraine could begin soon, beginning with aerial bombings and missile attacks. He advised all Americans to depart the country for their own safety as quickly as possible.
“Any American in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible, and in any event in the next 24 to 48 hours,” Sullivan said. “We obviously cannot predict the future, we don’t know exactly what is going to happen. But the risk is now high enough and the threat is now immediate enough that this is what prudence demands.”
“If a Russian attack on Ukraine proceeds, it is likely to begin with aerial bombings and missile attacks that could obviously kill civilians without regard to their nationality. A subsequent ground invasion would obviously involve the onslaught of a massive force,” he continued.
The warning came just before a senior defense official told CNN that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had ordered 3,000 more soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division to deploy to Poland, joining the 1,700 already there. The soldiers are there to help Americans who may try to leave Ukraine.
Following Sullivan’s remarks, Russia blasted Western countries and media for spreading a “large-scale disinformation campaign” over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying Friday that they were doing so “to divert attention from their own aggressive actions.”
“At the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, the global information space faced a media campaign unprecedented in its scale and sophistication, the purpose of which is to convince the world community that the Russian Federation is preparing an invasion of the territory of Ukraine,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement late Friday.
On Saturday Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to downplay concerns about an imminent invasion.
Speaking briefly after watching military exercises near Kherson in southern Ukraine, Zelensky said he had to “analyze all the information” regarding threats at the borders.
“And the truth is that we have different information. And now the best friend for enemies is panic in our country. And all this information helps only to create panic, doesn’t help us,” Zelensky said.
State Department has been calling Americans in Ukraine
The State Department has been calling Americans in Ukraine to find out if they have plans to leave as the US continues to urge US citizens to leave the country. Lee Humerian, an American living in Ukraine with his family and working as a missionary, told CNN that he got a call from the State Department Friday, asking if he had plans to leave the country.
The official asked if he read the most recent email from the State Department encouraging Americans to leave, according to Humerian. He told the official he had read it and he did not have plans to leave. Humerian registered with the State Department’s program that tracks Americans abroad. The State Department did not immediately respond to request for comment about these calls.
Despite those warnings, Sullivan added that it’s not clear if Putin has decided to invade Ukraine.
“I want to be crystal clear. A final decision has not been taken by President Putin, but we have a sufficient level of concern based on what we’re see on the ground and what our intelligence analysts have picked up that we’re sending this clear message and it remains a message that we have now been sending for some time. And it is an urgent message because we’re in an urgent situation,” Sullivan said.
The State Department official said during the call with reporters Saturday that a “couple thousand” Americans have told the State Department in recent days that they are still in Ukraine and a “substantial number” of them do not want to leave the country, despite potential dangers, the official said.
“We’re in active contact with them to understand whether or not they are planning to leave,” the official told reporters, as the department continues to urge those Americans to leave the country.
The State Department official said the US respects the decision of the Americans who want to stay but encourages them to reconsider that choice.
“There’s another substantial part of that group that have said they’re choosing to remain in Ukraine, and even while we strongly urge them to reconsider and advise them to leave because of the dangers that we foresee,” the official said. “We fully respect their right to make their own choices, and, you know people have, there are many reasons why people might resist leaving, including if they’re long-term residents of Ukraine.”
Some of the Americans are trying to leave the country now or have left already. The State Department is helping them leave if they want to.
“Very few” US citizens that the State Department has been in touch with have expressed an inability to get themselves out of the country, the official said. They have asked for help getting new passports or visas for non-American family members, the official said.
On Friday, Blinken said the US believes a Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin “at any time,” including during the ongoing Olympics in Beijing. He also said the US continues “to see very troubling signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border.”
“We’re continuing to draw down our embassy,” Blinken said during a press conference on Friday. “We will continue that process. And we’ve also been very clear that any American citizens who remain in Ukraine should leave now.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional reporting.