The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. closing embassy in Ukrainian capital as Putin appears to leave diplomatic door open

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. (Andrew Kravchenko/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

All remaining U.S. Embassy personnel in Ukraine’s capital are being relocated to the far western city of Lviv, near the border with Poland, the State Department said Monday, because of what Secretary of State Antony Blinken said was “the dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces” on the Ukrainian border and mounting U.S. fears of an invasion.

Blinken called the relocation and effective closure of the embassy, which followed an earlier evacuation of the bulk of its personnel, a temporary measure, undertaken “for one reason — the safety of our staff,” and repeated that all U.S. citizens in Ukraine should leave the country immediately.

The move came as Russian President Vladimir Putin left the door open to further talks with Western leaders, but indicated no change in Russia’s demand, categorically rejected by the United States and its NATO partners, that they pledge Ukraine will never be admitted to the Western alliance.

Putin met Monday with his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in what appeared to be a scripted moment in which the president voiced opposition to “the endless, in our opinion, and very dangerous expansion of NATO to the East,” according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Lavrov said that NATO wanted to determine Europe’s security architecture without regard for Russia but that talks with the United States and NATO “now must be developed and intensified.”

Lavrov added: “I have already said more than once that we warn against endless conversations on issues that need to be resolved today, but still, probably, being the head of the Foreign Ministry, I must say that there is always a chance.”

Putin, according to the Russian news agency Interfax, responded in the affirmative.

These countries are withdrawing embassy staffers from Ukraine amid growing fears of an invasion by Russia

State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Monday that “we have taken note of [Lavrov’s] comments.” But “in order for diplomacy and dialogue to succeed, it has to take place in the context of de-escalation. … We have not seen any meaningful, real sign of de-escalation.”

There are a “range of steps that would signal” Russian de-escalation, Price told reporters, noting that there are more than 130,000 Russian troops arrayed along Ukraine’s borders, and ongoing “bellicose rhetoric” from Moscow.

“All of those things could change,” he said. “This buildup has taken place in a couple of months. In the course of hours or days, we could see tangible signs of de-escalation, if Russia makes the political decision to do so.”

Price said Ukrainian national police would guard the U.S. Embassy compound in Kyiv once it is vacated. Other countries also have withdrawn at least some diplomatic personnel from Ukraine, while advising their resident nationals there to leave. In a declaration issued Saturday, the 27-member European Union said that while “staff presence and travel advice to EU citizens are being adjusted” to take security concerns into account, “our diplomatic missions are not closing.”

Ukraine’s armed forces conducted combat and first aid training drills on Feb. 5 in an abandoned town near the site of the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster. (Video: Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post)

As massive Russian military drills continued with Belarus, in the Black Sea, in southern Russia and other parts of the country, Putin also met Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who said that some drills were ending and others would be completed “in the near future.”

Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the crisis continued with the beginning of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s two-day trip to Kyiv and Moscow. Speaking at a joint news conference with President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Ukrainian capital, Scholz said that Russian military aggression against Ukraine would have “serious political, economic and geostrategic consequences for Russia.”

He said that sanctions in the event of a Russian attack on Ukraine would be “very far-reaching and effective” but did not specifically mention Nord Stream 2, the controversial gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that both Kyiv and Washington have pressured Berlin to halt in case of a Russian invasion.

Biden is threatening Putin with personal sanctions over Ukraine. What to know about this pressure tactic.

Zelensky said there remained differences between Kyiv and Berlin over Nord Stream 2, seen by Kyiv as a Russian “geopolitical weapon.” President Biden said last week that the pipeline would not go ahead if Russia sends its forces into Ukraine.

The new German chancellor, who has been reluctant to explicitly bar Nord Stream 2 from starting operations if Russia attacks, has been criticized for his relatively low-profile approach to the crisis. Berlin has declined to provide lethal weapons, saying it can better support Ukraine with economic aid. In Kyiv, Scholz announced a new, rapidly accessible loan of about $170 million.

The United States has provided $650 million in defense equipment and services over the past year, including a new shipment of $200 million in “lethal aid” announced last month. Several other NATO governments also have sent armaments, specifying they are for defensive purposes. On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that his government would supply $7.8 million in lethal equipment and ammunition.

When he travels to Moscow on Tuesday, Scholz will become the latest in a stream of Western officials to talk with Putin. A phone call between Biden and Putin over the weekend, and separate discussions between the Russian leader and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, again failed to yield a diplomatic breakthrough.

Biden also held an hour-long call Sunday with Zelensky. Later in the week, Putin is planning to meet with his closest military ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, the Kremlin said.

Moscow has not yet provided its formal response to written U.S. and NATO proposals to ease tensions. Peskov, the Kremlin’s chief spokesperson, said Monday that the Russian government would make an announcement once it has handed over its reply, but that Putin had not yet decided whether to make the document public.

The ongoing exchanges appear to have brought no change in positions on either side. In addition to demanding a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO, Russia has called for the removal of NATO forces and equipment from former Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe. For its part, the United States and its allies have rejected the proposed ban on NATO membership, saying every country has the sovereign right to seek its own security relationships.

The allies have proposed new discussions with Russia over nuclear nonproliferation and other security concerns, as well as confidence-building measures. If Russia takes military action against Ukraine, however, they have promised swift and devastating economic and financial penalties.

The showdown over NATO membership is more symbolic than substantive at this point, as the possibility of Ukraine joining the alliance any time in the near future is seen by NATO itself as questionable. In Kyiv, Scholz said that while Ukraine’s sovereignty was non-negotiable, NATO expansion was currently “not on the agenda.” He added that the fact this was being discussed when it was “not possible” was challenging.

What makes Russia’s massive war games with Belarus so worrying?

Biden said in June that Kyiv has a distance to go to meet NATO standards, including making progress in fighting corruption. In 2008, a NATO summit agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would join, but neither country was given a road map setting out necessary steps to do so.

Ukraine itself caused confusion Sunday when its ambassador to Britain, Vadym Prystaiko, told the BBC that Kyiv may be willing to “contemplate” withdrawing its membership bid to avoid a catastrophic war — while saying he did not think Ukraine would actually do so. On Monday, he clarified that, although Ukraine was perhaps willing to make some concessions to avoid war with Russia, that had nothing to do with the intention of joining NATO, something that is written into the nation’s constitution.

Ukraine's ambassador to the U.K. clarified remarks on dropping a bid for NATO membership, saying Ukraine would not reconsider its attempt to join the alliance. (Video: Reuters)

Following months of military buildup, Russia on Thursday began 10 days of joint exercises with Belarus, maneuvers that Western officials fear could be preparations for Moscow to invade Ukraine. Russia denies that it is planning an attack and has pledged that Russian troops will withdraw after the drills.

The White House has repeatedly emphasized its consultation with allies and partners, even as it has revealed extensive intelligence of the Russian buildup to domestic audiences. On Monday, national security adviser Jake Sullivan briefed House and Senate leaders, along with chairmen of relevant committees, on the latest developments. Sullivan, according to congressional aides familiar with the discussion, said the administration is leaning toward providing Ukraine $1 billion in sovereign loan guarantees to soften the economic blow caused by investor panic about a Russian military invasion. The U.S. government’s dire assessments have led to capital outflows, straining Ukraine’s banking system, a dynamic the United States is hoping to mitigate.

Later this week, Vice President Harris will hold in-person meetings with U.S. allies and partners at the Munich Security Conference, reaffirming Washington’s commitment to security in the region. The conference was launched by Western nations at the height of the Cold War to address military conflicts. The Kremlin has said it won’t send any officials.

Zelensky has expressed frustration over the grim warnings from U.S. military and intelligence officials about an imminent Russian invasion, which have taken a toll on Ukraine’s economy. In a video posted by his office Monday, he called on the “great people of a great country” not to panic. “They frighten us with a great war and once again set the date for a military invasion,” the video said. “But our state today is stronger than ever.”

Dixon reported from Moscow, Morris from Berlin and Pannett from Sydney. David L. Stern in Kyiv, Rick Noack in Paris, Amanda Coletta in Ottawa, and John Hudson, Missy Ryan, Karoun Demirjian and Amy B Wang in Washington contributed to this report.

Loading...