KYIV, Ukraine — The United States on Saturday ordered the evacuation of most staff from its embassy in Kiev, fearing that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was increasingly imminent.
President Joe Biden warned his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Saturday that the consequences of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be “swift and severe” in a phone call that lasted just over an hour. , according to a White House description of the conversation. The last time the two leaders spoke was on December 30.
Biden also reiterated that a Russian invasion would produce “widespread human suffering and diminish Russia’s standing” in the world, the White House said, adding that Biden was “clear with President Putin that if the United States remains ready to engage in diplomacy, in full coordination with our allies and partners, we are also prepared for other scenarios.
Prior to their call, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov “to discuss acute and shared concerns that Russia may be considering launching new military aggression against Ukraine in the coming days,” according to a State Department reading of the conversation. .
He added that Blinken “made it clear that a diplomatic avenue to resolve the crisis remained open, but that would require Moscow to de-escalate and engage in good faith talks.”
The call came after the State Department said in a travel advisory on Saturday that it had “ordered the departure of most direct U.S. employees of the Embassy in Kyiv due to the continued threat of Russian military action”.
From Sunday, he said, consular services would be suspended at the US Embassy in Kyiv and a “small consular presence” would be maintained in Lviv.
Located in western Ukraine, about 80 km from the Polish border, Lviv is farther from the likely Russian invasion routes.
A senior State Department official told reporters, including NBC News, on Saturday that the United States will “maintain sufficient personnel so that we can continue to work closely with the Ukrainian government.”
He added that it seemed “increasingly likely” that “the situation is heading towards some kind of active conflict. And that’s why we are reducing our personnel to the bare minimum.
Russia also said it was moving staff from its embassy to Kyiv. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said in a statement that it would “optimise” its workforce for fear of “provocation”.
“Please note that our embassies and consulates will continue to perform their basic functions,” they added.
A reading of the Lavrov-Blinken appeal provided by Moscow said the Russian foreign minister had accused Washington of waging a “propaganda campaign” about possible Russian aggression, while ignoring key Kremlin demands.
The Biden administration believes there is a “strong possibility” that Russia will invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics on February 20, although officials do not believe Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet taken a final decision.
On Friday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan hinted that the threat of such an incursion is “immediate enough now” to warn Americans still in Ukraine to leave within the next 24 to 48 hours.
“We continue to see signs of Russian escalation, including the arrival of new forces on the Ukrainian border. As we have said before, we are in the window where an invasion could begin at any time if Vladimir Putin decides to order it,” Sullivan told reporters during a White House briefing.
It came after Biden warned Americans who remain in Ukraine to leave immediately, saying in an interview with NBC News that sending troops into the country to rescue American citizens would result in a “world war”.
American allies were also urging their citizens to leave the country. Israel said it had decided to evacuate family members of Israeli diplomats and workers from its embassy, while Britain, Germany and the Netherlands called on their citizens to leave as soon as possible .
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Putin on Saturday, telling him that “sincere dialogue was not compatible with an escalation” of tensions, the Elysee Palace said in a statement.
Their call came after Moscow began military exercises in the Black Sea involving more than 30 naval fleets, Russian media RIA reported on Saturday. The Western Allies have expressed concern that Russia could use the naval exercises, as well as the ongoing military exercises in Belarus, as cover for an invasion.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, however, the atmosphere was calm. Shoppers were busy buying morsels, some stocking up on food from supermarkets’ full shelves.
The country’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday that the country had strengthened its ability to protect its citizens.
“Ukraine now has a strong position, including through coordinated diplomatic contacts at all levels, the conclusion of US and EU preparations for tough economic sanctions, arms deliveries and macro-financial assistance,” he said.
Sue Kroll reported from Kyiv and Rhoda Kwan from Melbourne, Australia.
Associated Press, Veronika Melkozerova, Oksana Parafeniuk, Abigail Williams and Josh Lederman contributed.