'Past time' to leave: US evacuates diplomats, troops from Ukraine amid 'war zone' warnings

The U.S. is also urging private American citizens to evacuate the country.

February 12, 2022, 1:39 PM

With increasingly dire warnings from the U.S. that Russia will likely attack Ukraine in the coming days, the U.S. is evacuating its diplomats and troops in the country and urging private American citizens to leave immediately, according to the State Department and Pentagon.

"It isn't just time to leave Ukraine. It is past time for private citizens to leave Ukraine," a senior State Department official said Saturday.

The U.S. embassy announced it was evacuating all but non-emergency staff from the country and that among the skeleton crew left behind, many would pull out of the capital, Kyiv, to the western city, Lviv, near the border with Poland.

The Pentagon also announced that it was withdrawing 160 soldiers from the Florida National Guard, among the only U.S. military presence in the country.

This handout video grab released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Feb. 9, 2022 shows combat crews of the S-400 air defense system taking up combat duty during joint exercises in Belarus.
Russian Defense Ministry/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian officials, at odds with the U.S. assessment of an imminent threat for weeks, were critical of the decision as they try to project calm to a nation weary of eight years of Russian aggression.

"Today in the information space, there is too much information about a deep, full-scale invasion from Russia," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told reporters. "The best friend of our enemy is panic in our country, and all that information which helps create only panic doesn't help us."

Russia has denied it has plans to invade Ukraine, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov telling Secretary of State Antony Blinken that again during a call Saturday, according to a second senior State Department official.

That call was part of a full-court press by the Biden administration to urge Russia to stand down from what U.S. officials say could be an imminent attack. President Joe Biden spoke to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu Saturday, while Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a rare call Friday to his counterpart, Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov.

But those high-level calls have not yet changed the U.S. assessment that an attack could take place in the coming days, as Biden's national security adviser warned Friday.

Therefore, the U.S. embassy is suspending consular services Sunday, as most of the remaining staff depart. While the embassy will not close, only emergency services will be available, with diplomats focused on communicating with the Ukrainian government.

"We fervently hope and continue to work intensively to try to ensure that Ukraine does not become a war zone," the first senior State Department official said, but they warned it "appears increasingly likely that this is where this situation is headed -- toward some kind of active conflict."

Pressed on Zelensky's opposition, they added, "The Ukrainians understand why we are taking these steps, even if all of them don't necessarily agree ... with our threat assessment and with our assessment of the extent to which potential conflict is imminent."

During their call, Blinken "emphasized" to Lavrov the "priority we place on the safety and security of American citizens, diplomatic personnel and our embassy facility," the second senior State Department official said.

But the first official said "even with restraint and respect for diplomatic facilities," things can "go wrong." While the U.S. will set up a diplomatic presence in Lviv instead, there will not be a de facto embassy there and staff won't be able to provide consular support like passports or visas, according to the official. For that, Americans are instructed that they will have to leave Ukraine and go to an embassy or consulate in another country.

A view shows the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 12, 2022.
Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Diplomats aren't the only ones leaving. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered 160 soldiers from the Florida National Guard to leave Ukraine to be repositioned elsewhere in Europe, the Pentagon announced Saturday.

"These troops, assigned to the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, have been advising and mentoring Ukrainian forces as part of Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine," said John Kirby, the Pentagon's top spokesperson.

"They are departing Ukraine and will reposition elsewhere in Europe," said Kirby. "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."

"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," he added.

In a sign of that, even as these drawdowns unfold, another shipment of U.S. military aid for Ukraine's armed forces is scheduled to arrive Saturday, according to the first senior State Department official. But Biden has made clear U.S. troops will not enter Ukraine to support its military or even to evacuate American citizens.

The Guardsmen have been in western Ukraine since November, training Ukraine's military and are based at a training center in Yavoriv, less than 10 miles from the border with Poland.

There was no update provided on the status of U.S. special operations forces that have also been serving in Ukraine as part of a training mission with Ukrainian special operations forces.

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