U.S. and Russia Order Partial Ukraine Embassy Evacuations

But Kyiv rebukes Washington for stoking panic.

By , , and
A photograph shows the US Embassy building in Kyiv, on January 24, 2022.
A photograph shows the US Embassy building in Kyiv, on January 24, 2022.
A photograph shows the US Embassy building in Kyiv, on January 24, 2022. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

The United States ordered the evacuation of most of its embassy staff from Ukraine and repeated warnings for U.S. citizens in Ukraine to leave the country immediately on Saturday as White House officials warned a Russian invasion could be imminent. 

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv will maintain a small presence to manage relations with the Ukrainian government. It will send other staff to Lviv, in western Ukraine near the Polish border, to manage limited consular services, according to a notice from the State Department. The new announcement underscores alarm within the U.S. government over a large-scale Russian military incursion in Ukraine despite months of diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis. 

Russia’s foreign ministry on Saturday also said it planned to draw down staff at its embassy in Kyiv and in consulates in Kharkiv, Odessa, and Lviv, citing the potential for Ukrainian provocations. 

The United States ordered the evacuation of most of its embassy staff from Ukraine and repeated warnings for U.S. citizens in Ukraine to leave the country immediately on Saturday as White House officials warned a Russian invasion could be imminent. 

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv will maintain a small presence to manage relations with the Ukrainian government. It will send other staff to Lviv, in western Ukraine near the Polish border, to manage limited consular services, according to a notice from the State Department. The new announcement underscores alarm within the U.S. government over a large-scale Russian military incursion in Ukraine despite months of diplomatic efforts to defuse the crisis. 

Russia’s foreign ministry on Saturday also said it planned to draw down staff at its embassy in Kyiv and in consulates in Kharkiv, Odessa, and Lviv, citing the potential for Ukrainian provocations. 

Other Western countries have followed suit and urged their citizens to leave or drawn down their embassy presence in Kyiv, but their messages stand in stark contrast to those being put out by the Ukrainian government. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other prominent Ukrainian politicians have rebuked the U.S. government, saying its warnings are fueling panic. “I think there’s too much out there about a full-scale war from Russia, and people are even naming dates,” Zelensky said. “The best friend for our enemies is panic in our country, and all this information only creates panic, it doesn’t help us.”

In an interview in Kyiv on Saturday, Naftogaz CEO Yuriy Vitrenko said, “Based on the intelligence that we have, we don’t see the threat as imminent.” As head of the country’s state energy company, Vitrenko said he has been read in on Ukrainian intelligence. 

At the same time, Ukraine’s defense minister and top military official released a joint statement on Saturday. Lt. Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, said that Ukrainian troops “are ready to meet enemies not with flowers, but with Stingers, Javelins and NLAW,” describing a variety of defensive weapons platforms provided to Ukraine by NATO countries. “Welcome to hell!” the top military official added. 

U.S. officials have described the moves as an important precaution to stave off a possible chaotic evacuation. “We don’t know exactly what is going to happen,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Friday. “But the risk is now high enough, and the threat is now immediate enough, that this is what prudence demands. If you stay, you are assuming risk, with no other guarantee that there will be an opportunity to leave and no prospect of a U.S. military evacuation.” 

The United States’ decision in January to order the families of its diplomats to leave the country and to advise U.S. citizens against travel to Ukraine was widely criticized in Kyiv as stoking unhelpful panic. “I think many here would agree it was premature,” said Andy Hunder, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Ukraine. 

U.S. President Joe Biden and top diplomatic officials have engaged in a flurry of diplomacy in recent days ahead of the embassy evacuation order. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to speak by phone to both Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Saturday, warning that “should Moscow pursue the path of aggression and further invade Ukraine, it would result in a resolute, massive, and united trans-Atlantic response,” according to a readout of the call from the State Department. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu on Saturday.

Germany, Britain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Estonia, and Latvia are among the countries that have joined the United States in urging their citizens to leave Ukraine.  

The diplomatic evacuations have also been followed by caution at the Pentagon. On Saturday, Austin ordered the evacuation of 160 Florida National Guard troops who had been in Ukraine since November 2021 on a training mission. The Pentagon described the move as temporary and indicated that the troops would be repositioned elsewhere in Europe. The British military also indicated that its forces would leave Ukraine over the weekend. 

Biden earlier this month ordered 3,000 U.S. troops to be deployed to Poland and Romania to bolster NATO’s eastern flank. U.S. officials assess that Russia has amassed 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s border, purportedly for military exercises. The Kremlin denies U.S. accusations that it plans to invade Ukraine.

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

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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