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U.S. orders families of embassy staff to leave Ukraine

CBS News logo CBS News 1/24/2022 Eleanor Watson

The State Department has ordered families of U.S embassy employees in Kyiv, Ukraine, to leave the country and authorized some U.S. government employees to depart due to the potential of Russian military action. 

Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine would severely impact the embassy's ability to provide consular services, including assistance to U.S. citizens in departing Ukraine, a State Department official told reporters on Sunday night. The State Department is urging those who can depart to do so on commercially-available flights.   

The decisions were made out of an abundance of caution due to Russia's continued military buildup and disinformation campaigns, a separate senior State Department official said. 

The State Department does not have a "solid number" of how many Americans are in Ukraine, according to the official, because no one is required to register with the embassy while there. 

Russia has amassed over 100,000 troops on Ukraine's border, and although the U.S. does not know if Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a decision to invade or if a decision is imminent, he has built the military capacity to invade at any point, one of the officials said.  

An instructor trains members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. / Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP © Provided by CBS News An instructor trains members of Ukraine's Territorial Defense Forces, volunteer military units of the Armed Forces, in a city park in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022. Dozens of civilians have been joining Ukraine's army reserves in recent weeks amid fears about Russian invasion. / Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP

The concern has grown because of Russian forces entering Belarus, just north of Ukraine, to conduct joint military exercises, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. 

"If Russia chooses to engage in further military aggression, it has the opportunity to launch the attack from different directions based on where it can launch these incursions against Ukraine," one official said.

The State Department's travel advisory to Ukraine was already at a level four, the highest level, because of COVID-19, but the advisory was updated to urge citizens not to travel to the country over concerns of the potential of a significant Russian military action against Ukraine. 

If an incursion were to occur, the security conditions along occupied Crimea and eastern Ukraine are unpredictable and could deteriorate at any moment, according to the official. Though Crimea and the eastern parts of Ukraine are of particular concern, Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine would severely impact the embassy's ability to provide services. 

The U.S. last month authorized an additional $200 million in defensive aid, and the first shipment which contains lethal aid for the Ukraine defensive forces arrived in Kyiv on Saturday. 


Video: No breakthrough so far in NATO-Russia talks to de-escalate tension with Ukraine (CBS News)

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told "Face the Nation" on Sunday that there will be "massive consequences" for Russia if its military forces invade Ukraine.

Blinken warns of "massive consequences" for R... 08:18 © Provided by CBS News Blinken warns of "massive consequences" for R... 08:18

"Russia will make its decisions based on President [Vladimir] Putin's calculus of what's in their interest," Blinken said. "We are working very hard to affect that calculus, both in terms of offering a diplomatic path forward that could enhance collective security for all of us and equally a path of defense and deterrence, that makes very clear that if there's aggression, there'll be massive consequences. So the choice is his."

President Biden last week said it was his "guess" that Russia would invade Ukraine, and the White House sought to walk back comments he made at a press conference Wednesday that suggested there could be divisions among Western nations about the consequences Russia could face if it launched a "minor incursion" into Ukrainian territory. 

Russia's government has consistently denied any plans to attack Ukraine, but it also leaves the option of unspecified "military action" on the table if the U.S. and the West refuse to grant what Putin has called "security guarantees" constraining NATO's actions in the region.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said staffing at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv was "a question for the American side," but she suggested it was more to do with "how they are building their information agenda" than actual security concerns.

Ukraine, NATO allies respond

Britain, which has remained in close sync with U.S. rhetoric on Ukraine, said Monday that it, too, was pulling some members of its embassy staff and their dependants out of Kyiv due to "a growing threat from Russia," but that the British Embassy would remain open "and will continue to carry out essential work."

Other European nations have been hesitant to back the level of sanctions that the U.S. has proposed as a response to any Russian military action against Ukraine, however, and on Monday, top European Union diplomat Josep Borrell said the bloc was "not going to do the same thing" as the U.S. and the U.K. with its embassy staff, "because we don't know any specific reasons." 

"I don't think we had to dramatize as far as the negotiations are going on," Borrell said, referring to talks with Russia, "and they are going on."

Russia ups military presence at Ukraine borde... 01:44 © Provided by CBS News Russia ups military presence at Ukraine borde... 01:44

Even Ukraine appeared uncomfortable with the latest U.S. move.

"We consider such a step by the American side premature and a display of excessive caution," Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said in a statement. He said there had been "no radical changes" in the security situation along his country's borders.

Nikolenko said that amid "active efforts" by Russia to destabilize his country, through "disinformation, manipulation," to "sow panic among Ukrainians and foreigners... it is important to soberly access the risks and keep calm."

CBS News' Tucker Reals contributed to this report.

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