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U.S. orders embassy families out of Ukraine, says some staff may leave as well

Advisories issued Sunday evening included a top-level "do not travel" warning for the region as Russian troops were massed at Ukraine's border.

WASHINGTON — Americans should consider leaving Ukraine "now," nonemergency diplomatic employees were authorized to depart, and eligible family members were ordered to evacuate Sunday amid Russia's continued military presence along the country's border, the U.S. State Department said.

While family members of embassy employees in Kyiv were required to depart, the others covered by the travel advisory were not, a senior State Department official said.

The State Department also warned Americans not to travel to Ukraine or Russia, citing the possibility of Russian military action. Moscow has amassed more than 100,000 troops at its border with Ukraine, but denied planning an invasion even as Western fears mount.

Ukraine criticized the U.S. move to withdraw diplomats' families. “We believe such a step to be a premature one & an instance of excessive caution,” Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, said in a tweet.

But some U.S. allies are following suit. The British Foreign Office said early Monday that “Some Embassy staff and dependents are being withdrawn from Kyiv in response to growing threat from Russia,” although the British embassy in Kyiv remains open.

However the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, told reporters Monday that its diplomats would not be leaving, adding that he is due to speak with his European national counterparts and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at 9 a.m. ET.

The U.S. "do not travel" advisories, designated as top-level travel warnings, cited "the increased threats of Russian military action," as well as "the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens."

President Joe Biden has said military action, including invasion, could be imminent. In his news conference last week marking one year in office, Biden warned that Russia would face "disaster" if it invaded Ukraine.

"If they actually do what they’re capable of doing with the forces amassed on the border, it is going to be a disaster for Russia," he said, adding, "Our allies and partners are ready to impose severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy."

Biden said at the news conference that the U.S. has sent $600 million worth of "sophisticated equipment, defensive equipment," to Ukraine's government. That presumably includes $200 million worth of gear pledged last month.

Ukraine's embassy in the U.S. said Saturday that the first U.S. shipment of “lethal aid," including ammunition intended for Ukraine's "front line defenders," had touched down in Kyiv — less than 24 hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his Russian counterpart.

Blinken said Sunday on NBC News' "Meet the Press": "In the event that there is a renewed Russian incursion, Russian forces going into Ukraine, there is going to be a swift, a severe and united response."  

Blinken said other incursions, including cyberwarfare, were possible.

The U.K.'s Foreign Office said Saturday that the Kremlin was seeking to install a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine, an allegation National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said Sunday was "disturbing."

The U.S. and its allies have long tussled with Moscow over Ukraine because of its strategic position between Russia and Europe. While Ukraine has evolved toward a Western-style government, Russia is in the grip of authoritarian President Vladimir Putin.

"The United States attaches great importance to the success of Ukraine as a free and democratic state with a flourishing market economy," the State Department has said.

The senior State Department official said the advisory should not be taken as a sign that the U.S. believes an invasion will definitely happen in the following hours or days.

"The U.S. government will not be in a position to evacuate U.S. citizens," the source said. "So U.S. citizens currently present in Ukraine [should] plan accordingly, including by availing themselves of commercial options, should they choose to leave the country, and commercial options are available now."

The official said the advisory is not intended to affect U.S. support for Ukraine.

"I just want to be clear that these are prudent precautions that in no way undermine our support for or commitment to Ukraine," the senior official said. "And we continue to follow our commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity."