US moves embassy from Ukrainian capital amid fears of Russian invasion

Warning of a “dramatic acceleration in the build-up of Russian forces” on the Ukrainian border, the United States announced on Monday that it was closing its embassy in the capital, Kyiv, over fears for the safety of its diplomats.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he had been told Russia would invade on Wednesday, a quip his office later said was sarcastic, reflecting what some in Kyiv believe was running out of steam on the part of members of the Biden administration who warned of an impending Russian attack.

Washington and most European capitals, as evidence of an impending invasion, say Moscow has mustered more than 130,000 troops on its border with Ukraine and in its ally Belarus, which sits on the northern border of the Ukraine, just a two-hour drive from Kiev. There is, however, disagreement on the time frame within which such action could take place.

The White House and State Department have reiterated the US assertion that Russia has shown no evidence of de-escalation, as demanded by NATO members.

“What we see on the pitch with our own eyes [indicates] it could start at any time,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

As a result, the State Department, which had already begun withdrawing personnel from the beleaguered former Soviet republic, said it was “transferring” all embassy functions to Lviv, a city hundreds of miles away. kilometers west of Kiev, near the border with Poland.

“I ordered these actions for one reason — the safety of our personnel — and we strongly urge all U.S. citizens remaining in Ukraine to leave the country immediately,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said.

He said the embassy in Lviv would “remain engaged with the Ukrainian government,” including intense efforts to defuse the crisis, despite the distance from the seat of Ukrainian government.

Price said the country’s top US diplomat, Kristina Kvien, was already in Lviv, along with a “vast majority” of the reduced core staff remaining in the country. In Kyiv, there were reports of departing officials destroying computers and the building going dark.

US officials have planned an invasion that would be “multipronged” and overwhelming, including cyber sabotage that would shut down much of the country’s institutions and power grids, followed by airstrikes and ground troop movements.

This raised questions about whether the move to Lviv really made diplomats safer or if it was a face-saving move to show that the United States had not completely abandoned the country. . Price dismissed this explanation, saying it was “a question of geography”. Moving west would distance the Americans from Russian troops and allow them to escape through NATO member Poland.

“The threat is very real,” Price said. The closure of the embassy “does not signal any reduction on our part for the territorial integrity and sovereignty (…) of Ukraine, quite the contrary”.

Orders for US citizens to leave Ukraine have angered Ukrainian officials who fear panic could ensue. The Biden administration, for its part, is keen to avoid anything resembling the disastrous evacuation from Afghanistan last year, when hundreds of Americans who refused to leave on their own were stranded, at least temporarily, after the withdrawal of American forces to end two decades. of war.

Despite its massive troop deployment, Russia has denied the plans it intends to attack. On Monday, Moscow signaled that it was open to further discussions with Western governments on its security requirements. Many of these demands, including one to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, have been rejected by the United States and its European allies.

President Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, and the United States has engaged in several rounds of diplomacy to try to defuse the crisis. Blinken spoke Monday for the second time in three days with his Ukrainian counterpart, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

“Our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering. We also continue our sincere efforts to reach a diplomatic solution, and we remain engaged with the Russian government following President Biden’s call with President Putin and my discussion with Foreign Minister Lavrov,” Blinken said in a statement. . “The path of diplomacy remains available should Russia choose to engage in good faith. We look forward to bringing our personnel back to the Embassy as soon as conditions permit.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III will travel to Europe on Tuesday to meet with U.S. allies in Belgium, Poland and Lithuania and discuss Russia’s military buildup, according to the Pentagon.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said: “It is entirely possible that [Putin] can act with little or no warning,” but that Washington does not believe the Russian president has made a decision. Kirby reiterated Biden’s message that an invasion would have quick and severe economic and diplomatic consequences.

European leaders were also busy Monday trying to prevent war. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met in Ukraine with Zelensky before traveling to Moscow for talks with Putin.

“There is no valid reason for such a military deployment,” Scholz said, urging Russia to defuse. “No one should doubt the determination and readiness of the EU, NATO, Germany and the United States.”

At the White House, officials continued to urge Putin to “engage constructively” while working with European countries to secure energy supplies, including natural gas markets, and to mitigate climate shocks. prices – all of whom could suffer if the West imposes severe financial sanctions on Moscow. .

“All the tools are on the table,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said.

US lawmakers, meanwhile, emerged grim-faced from closed-door briefings with White House national security officials.

“Time is running out for diplomacy,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters.

Times writers Anumita Kaur and Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.

Christi C. Elwood