U.S. to evacuate embassy staff from Ukraine amid fears of Russian invasion

KYIV, Ukraine — The United States on Saturday ordered the evacuation of most of its embassy staff in Kyiv amid fears a Russian invasion of Ukraine is increasingly imminent.

President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will speak on Saturday as Western nations warned Moscow could invade its neighbor at any moment. The last time the two leaders spoke was Dec. 30.

The Department of State said in a travel advisory that it had “ordered the departure of most U.S. direct hire employees from Embassy Kyiv due to the continued threat of Russian military action.”

As of Sunday, the Department of State will suspend consular services at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, it said.

“The embassy will maintain a small consular presence in Lviv, Ukraine to handle emergencies, but will not be able to provide passport, visa or routine consular services,” the advisory added.

The U.S. Embassy building in Kyiv.Sergei Supinsky / AFP – Getty Images

Situated in western Ukraine around 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv is further away from probable Russian invasion routes.

Russia also indicated it was moving staff from its embassy in Kyiv on Saturday. A spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry on Saturday said in a statement that it would “optimize” its staff numbers amid fears of “provocation.”

“Please note that our embassies and consulates will continue to perform their basic functions,” they added.

The Biden administration believes there is a “distinct possibility” Russia could invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 20, although officials do not believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a final decision yet.

On Friday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan suggested that the threat of such an incursion is “now immediate enough” to warn Americans still in Ukraine to leave in the next 24 to 48 hours.

“We continue to see signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border. As we’ve said before, we are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time should Vladimir Putin decide to order it,” Sullivan told reporters at a White House briefing.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Fiji that if Russian President Vladimir Putin was genuinely interested in resolving the escalating standoff through diplomacy, Washington was prepared to play its part but would impose swift economic sanctions if Moscow invades.

“I continue to hope that he will not choose the path of renewed aggression and he’ll chose the path of diplomacy and dialogue,” he told a news conference after meeting Pacific Island leaders. “But if he doesn’t, we’re prepared.”

It came after Biden warned Americans who remain in Ukraine to leave immediately, saying in an interview with NBC News on Thursday that sending troops into the country to rescue U.S. citizens would result in “world war.”

American allies were also urging their citizens to leave the country.

“They should leave immediately,” British Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces James Heappey told the BBC. “There is now a concentration of missile systems, artillery and combat air that means that Russia is in a position to launch a strike into Ukraine at almost no notice.”

His comments came as Moscow began military exercises in the Black Sea involving over 30 naval fleets, Russian state-owned outlet RIA reported Saturday. Western Allies have voiced concerns Russia may use the military drills as cover for invasion.

Elsewhere, Israel also said it had decided to evacuate family members of diplomats and Israeli workers at its Embassy, while Germany and the Netherlands called on their citizens to leave as soon as possible. 

In Ukraine’s capital Kyiv however, the mood was calm. Shoppers milled about buying bits and pieces, some stocking up food from full supermarket shelves.

The country’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement Saturday that the country had strengthened its capacity to protect its citizens.

“Ukraine has now a strong position, including due to coordinated diplomatic contacts at all levels, conclusion of preparation by the US and the EU of the tough economic sanctions, arms supplies and macro-financial assistance,” it said.

Sue Kroll reported from Kyiv, and Rhoda Kwan from Melbourne, Australia.

Associated Press, Veronika Melkozerova and Oksana Parafeniuk contributed.

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