US orders evacuation of most Ukraine embassy staff as fears of Russian invasion grow

These measures are signs of growing concerns among US officials about the safety of Americans in Ukraine.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered members of the Florida National Guard out of Ukraine, repositioning them “elsewhere in Europe,” according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. The 160 soldiers have been in Ukraine since November for a training mission.

“They are leaving Ukraine and will reposition elsewhere in Europe. The Secretary made this decision out of caution – with the safety and security of our personnel above all else – and informed by State Department guidance on U.S. personnel in Ukraine “, Kirby said in a statement.

The Pentagon still supports the Ukrainian army, despite this order.

“This repositioning does not mean a change in our resolve to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but will provide flexibility to reassure allies and deter aggression,” Kirby said.

A travel advisory issued by the State Department on Saturday said it had ‘ordered the departure of most direct-hire US employees from the Embassy in Kyiv due to the continued threat of Russian military action’. .

He also said consular services would be suspended but stressed that a small diplomatic presence would be maintained in the western city of Lviv, about 80 km from the Polish border, to handle emergencies.

Several countries are also reducing their diplomatic presence and urging their citizens to leave Ukraine.

A senior State Department official said in a call with reporters on Saturday morning that it was high time for American citizens to leave Ukraine because there are limits to what the United States can do. do to help them in a war zone, which is “inherently volatile” and “extremely volatile”. dangerous.”

“Once a country or region becomes an active conflict zone, we have very few means to help our fellow citizens,” the official said.

The State Department announcement came ahead of a call on Saturday between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin as US officials increased the urgency of their warnings that Moscow could be about to invade.

Prior to the call, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and spoke of “acute and shared concerns that Russia is considering launching a new military aggression against Ukraine in the coming days,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Saturday.

Blinker tweeted that he “reiterated that further Russian aggression would be met with a resolute, massive and united transatlantic response”.

Blinken also “underscored the priority we place on the safety of American citizens, diplomatic personnel and our embassy facilities,” another senior State Department official told reporters traveling with Blinken on Saturday.

Lavrov “again denied that Russia intends to invade Ukraine,” the official said.

On Friday, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned that a Russian assault on Ukraine could begin soon, starting with aerial bombardments and missile attacks. He advised all Americans to leave the country for their own safety as soon as possible.

“Any American in Ukraine should leave as soon as possible, and in any event within the next 24 to 48 hours,” Sullivan said. “We obviously can’t predict the future, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. But the risk is now high enough and the threat is now sufficiently immediate that that’s what caution demands.”

“If a Russian attack on Ukraine continues, it will likely begin with aerial bombardment and missile attacks which obviously could kill civilians regardless of their nationality. A subsequent ground invasion would obviously involve the assault of a massive force “, he continued.

The warning came just before a senior defense official told CNN that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had ordered 3,000 more troops from the 82nd Airborne Division to deploy to Poland, joining the 1 700 already present. The soldiers are there to help Americans who may attempt to leave Ukraine.

Following Sullivan’s remarks, Russia criticized Western countries and media for spreading a “widespread disinformation campaign” about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying Friday they were doing so “to deflect the careful of their own aggressive actions”.

“At the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, the global information space faced a media campaign unprecedented in its scale and sophistication, the aim of which is to convince the world community that the Russian Federation is preparing an invasion of the territory of Ukraine,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement late Friday.

On Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to downplay concerns about an impending invasion.

Speaking briefly after watching military exercises near Kherson in southern Ukraine, Zelensky said he needed to “analyze all information” regarding border threats.

“And the truth is that we have different information. And now the enemy’s best friend is panic in our country. And all this information is just creating panic, not helping us,” Zelensky said.

State Department calls on Americans in Ukraine

The State Department has called Americans in Ukraine to ask if they are considering leaving as the United States continues to urge American citizens to leave the country. Lee Humerian, an American living in Ukraine with his family and working as a missionary, told CNN he received a call from the State Department on Friday asking if he intended to leave the country.

The official asked if he had read the latest State Department email encouraging Americans to leave, according to Humerian. He told the official that he had read it and had no intention of leaving. Humerian enrolled in the State Department program that tracks Americans abroad. The State Department did not immediately respond to request for comment on those calls.

Despite these warnings, Sullivan added that it is not clear if Putin has decided to invade Ukraine.

Russia may be on the brink of war.  In Moscow, you may not know

“I want to be crystal clear. A final decision has not been made by President Putin, but we have a sufficient level of concern based on what we are seeing on the ground and what that our intelligence analysts have picked up that we’re sending this clear message and it remains a message that we’ve been sending now for some time. And it’s an urgent message because we’re in an urgent situation,” Sullivan said.

The State Department official said on the call with reporters on Saturday that “a few thousand” Americans have told the State Department in recent days that they are still in Ukraine and that a “substantial number “Of them did not wish to leave the country, despite the potential dangers, the official said.

“We are in active contact with them to understand whether or not they are considering leaving,” the official told reporters, as the department continues to urge those Americans to leave the country.

The State Department official said the United States respects the decision of Americans who want to stay but encourages them to reconsider.

“There is another significant part of this group who have said they choose to remain in Ukraine, and although we strongly urge them to reconsider and advise them to leave due to the dangers we foresee,” the official said. . “We fully respect their right to make their own choices, and, you know people have, there are many reasons why people might resist leaving, including if they are long-term residents. of Ukraine.”

Some of the Americans are trying to leave the country now or have already left. The State Department helps them leave if they wish.

“Very few” U.S. citizens with whom the State Department has been in contact have expressed an inability to leave the country, the official said. They asked for help getting new passports or visas for non-US family members, the official said.

On Friday, Blinken said the United States believed a Russian invasion of Ukraine could begin “at any time,” including during the ongoing Olympics in Beijing. He also said the United States continues “to see very disturbing signs of Russian escalation, including the arrival of new forces on the Ukrainian border.”

“We continue to downsize our embassy,” Blinken said at a news conference on Friday. “We will continue this process. And we have also been very clear that all US citizens who remain in Ukraine should leave now.”

This story and headline have been updated with additional reports.

CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Natasha Bertrand, Maegan Vazquez, Olga Voitovych, Kareem El Damanhoury, Darya Tarasova, Sharon Braithwaite, Donald Judd and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting.