US allows most embassy staff to leave Moscow and Minsk because of war in Ukraine

The US embassy in Moscow has been reduced and the diplomatic service in Minsk completely suspended, the State Department announced on Monday.

A notice attributed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he “authorized the voluntary departure … of non-emergency employees and family members” from the embassy in the Russian capital.

“We took these measures due to security and safety concerns resulting from the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine,” he said.

“Ultimately, we have no higher priority than the safety and security of American citizens, and that includes our U.S. government personnel and their dependents serving around the world,” Blinken said.

US consulates in Yekaterinburg – about 870 miles east of Moscow – and Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East had already been suspended for the past two years.

The statement came hours after most of Western Europe closed its airspace to Russian planes.

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A Russian flag flies next to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia, December 7, 2021. Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the State Department announced the authorized departure of the non-emergency personnel and family members of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on February 28. , 2022. The US Embassy in Minsk was closed on the same day.
ALEXANDRE NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russian troops have been advancing towards Kiev since President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale offensive on February 24, but rocket forces inside Russia and Belarus have been directly involved in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which is now entering its fifth day.

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry reported several dozen dead and hundreds more injured on Monday afternoon following Russian rocket attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, located about 300 miles west of the capital. Graphic images circulating on social media following the bombardment showed civilians with partially missing limbs.

The escalation in hostilities comes as US officials said Ukraine’s armed forces and their territorial defenders put up fierce resistance to slow down Putin’s investigative forces. But the barrage of rockets also came when President Volodymyr Zelensky dispatched a delegation to attend ongoing peace talks on the Ukraine-Belarus border.

US officials have said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – a close ally of Putin – is likely to allow the country’s paratroopers to join the war.

Over the weekend, US and European leaders announced punitive economic sanctions against Moscow in response to the aggression. These measures caused the Russian ruble to fall to a historic low on Monday, as the country was cut off from the SWIFT payment system and its central bank was prohibited from using foreign exchange reserves.

Meanwhile, individual European nations have made the decision to further isolate Russia from the rest of the continent by closing their airspace to Russian aircraft. Moscow responded in kind by banning European airliners flying to Russia.

A day before its operations were reduced, the US Embassy in Moscow urged all US citizens to leave the country as soon as possible.

“A growing number of airlines are canceling flights to and from Russia, and many countries have closed their airspace to Russian airlines. US citizens should consider leaving Russia immediately via commercial options still available,” did he declare.

The UN Refugee Agency said on Monday that more than half a million people had already fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began last week. They included about 281,000 people entering Poland, 84,500 entering Hungary, 36,400 entering Moldova, 32,500 entering Romania and 30,000 entering Slovakia.