KYIV, Ukraine — The United States on Saturday ordered the evacuation of most of its embassy staff in Kyiv amid fears that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is increasingly imminent.
President Joe Biden on Saturday warned his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, that the consequences of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would be "swift and severe" during a phone call that lasted just over an hour, according to the a White House description of the conversation. The last time the two leaders spoke was Dec. 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 while the United States remains prepared to engage in diplomacy, in full coordination with our allies and partners, we are equally prepared for other scenarios.”
Ahead of 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 further military aggression against Ukraine in the coming days,” according to a State Department readout of the conversation.
It added that Blinken “made clear that a diplomatic path to resolving the crisis remained open, but it would require Moscow to de-escalate and engage in good-faith discussions.”
The call took place after the State Department said in a travel advisory early Saturday that it had “ordered the departure of most U.S. direct hire employees from Embassy Kyiv due to the continued threat of Russian military action.”
As of Sunday, it said, consular services would be suspended at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv and a "small consular presence" would be maintained in Lviv.
Situated in western Ukraine, around 50 miles from the Polish border, Lviv is farther away from probable Russian invasion routes.
A senior State Department official told reporters, including NBC News, Saturday that the U.S. was “going to maintain staff sufficient to be able to continue working closely with the Ukrainian government.”
It added that it appeared “increasingly likely” that the “situation is headed toward some kind of active conflict. And that is why we are reducing our staff to a bare minimum.”
Russia also indicated it was moving staff from its embassy in Kyiv. A spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it would “optimize” its staff numbers amid fears of “provocation.”
“Please note that our embassies and consulates will continue to perform their basic functions,” they added.
A readout of the Lavrov-Blinken call provided by Moscow said the Russian foreign minister had accused Washington of waging a “propaganda campaign” about possible Russian aggression, while ignoring key demands made by the Kremlin.
The Biden administration believes there is a “distinct possibility” Russia could invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 20, although officials do not believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a final decision yet.
On Friday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan suggested that the threat of such an incursion is “now immediate enough” to warn Americans still in Ukraine to leave in the next 24 to 48 hours.
“We continue to see signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border. As we’ve said before, we are in the window when an invasion could begin at any time should Vladimir Putin decide to order it,” Sullivan told reporters at 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 U.S. citizens would result in “world war.”
American allies were also urging their citizens to leave the country. Israel said it had decided to evacuate family members of diplomats and Israeli workers at its embassy, while Britain, Germany and the Netherlands called on their citizens to leave as soon as possible.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin Saturday, telling him that “sincere dialogue was not compatible with escalation” in tensions, the Elysee Palace said in a readout.
Their call came after Moscow began military exercises in the Black Sea involving more than 30 naval fleets, Russian state-owned outlet RIA reported Saturday. Western Allies have voiced concerns Russia may use the naval drills, as well as ongoing military exercises in Belarus, as cover for an invasion.
In Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, however, the mood was calm. Shoppers milled about buying bits and pieces, some stocking up on food from full supermarket shelves.
The country's Foreign Ministry said in a statement Saturday that the country had strengthened its capacity to protect its citizens.
“Ukraine has now a strong position, including due to coordinated diplomatic contacts at all levels, conclusion of preparation by the U.S. and the E.U. of the tough economic sanctions, arms supplies and macro-financial assistance,” it said.
Sue Kroll reported from Kyiv, and Rhoda Kwan from Melbourne, Australia.