U.S. Orders Diplomats’ Families to Leave Ukraine Amid Russian Invasion Fears

High-level diplomatic talks between the United States and Russia have failed to defuse the crisis.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A view of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
A view of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
A view of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 24. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Putin’s War

The U.S. State Department has ordered the evacuation of families of U.S. diplomats from Ukraine and urged U.S. citizens in Ukraine to leave the country amid an increasingly likely threat of a Russian military invasion.

The directive also allows for nonessential U.S. government personnel to evacuate on a voluntary basis, reflecting Washington’s growing concerns that weeks of high-level diplomacy have failed to convince Russia not to move forward with a military invasion of Ukraine.

“Why did we make this decision now? Do we believe a Russian invasion is imminent? As President [Joe] Biden has said, military action by Russia could come at any time,” a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We continue to pursue the path of diplomacy. But if Russia chooses further escalation, then the security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders in Russia-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice.”

The U.S. State Department has ordered the evacuation of families of U.S. diplomats from Ukraine and urged U.S. citizens in Ukraine to leave the country amid an increasingly likely threat of a Russian military invasion.

The directive also allows for nonessential U.S. government personnel to evacuate on a voluntary basis, reflecting Washington’s growing concerns that weeks of high-level diplomacy have failed to convince Russia not to move forward with a military invasion of Ukraine.

“Why did we make this decision now? Do we believe a Russian invasion is imminent? As President [Joe] Biden has said, military action by Russia could come at any time,” a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We continue to pursue the path of diplomacy. But if Russia chooses further escalation, then the security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders in Russia-occupied Crimea and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice.”

The State Department has not said how many embassy personnel plan to remain in place and has not given an estimate of how many U.S. citizens are currently in Ukraine.

Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, including a recent buildup of military forces in neighboring Belarus ostensibly for joint military drills, and has not given any indication it will draw down its forces despite a recent meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva aimed at defusing the crisis.

The Biden administration has repeatedly warned Russia of dire economic and political consequences if it carries out an invasion, including punishing sanctions. Washington is also delivering $200 million worth of “lethal defensive security assistance,” including ammunition, to Ukrainian armed forces as they brace for a possible Russian invasion, the senior official said. The first of several shipments arrived in Kyiv on Jan. 22.

Other NATO allies, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Poland, and the Baltic states, are considering or have announced plans to deliver further military aid to Ukraine. The Baltic states have urged the United States to deploy more troops to NATO’s eastern flank as tensions escalate, though the United States has no plans to deploy troops to Ukraine, which is not a NATO member.

Absent a full-fledged invasion, NATO allies are still warning that Russia has plans to foment unrest in Ukraine, and Britain has accused Russia of crafting plans to topple the Ukrainian government and install a puppet government aligned with the Kremlin. Moscow denied the charges.

Britain has announced it is withdrawing about half its embassy staff from Ukraine, while Germany is preparing evacuation plans for the families of its embassy personnel. Other countries, including Australia and France, have issued travel advisories for its citizens in Ukraine. The European Union, however, is leaving its diplomatic personnel in Kyiv in place for the time being. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv remains open. The top U.S. diplomat at the embassy, Chargé d’Affaires Kristina Kvien, and other government personnel deemed essential will remain in place.

“These are prudent precautions taken for the sake of the safety of U.S. citizens and government personnel, and they in no way undermine our support for or our commitment to Ukraine,” the senior official said.

Despite these assurances, the Ukrainian government mildly rebuked Washington over the decision. “We have taken note of @StateDept’s decision re departure of family members of @USEmbassyKyiv staff. While we respect right of foreign nations to ensure safety & security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one & an instance of excessive caution,” Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted on Monday.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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