KYIV – Ukrainians expressed confusion and anger Monday over Washington’s decision to authorize the voluntary departure of government employees from Kyiv and order the mandatory withdrawal of family members of US embassy personnel.
The decision announced by the Department of State cited the “threat of Russian military action.” It comes as a staggering number of Russian soldiers with heavy weaponry continue to arrive at areas along the Ukraine border, moves that President Joe Biden has warned may be preparation for a new invasion.
The Ukrainians, however, have been more cautious in their assessment of the situation, with current and former national security and defense officials saying they don’t recognize Russia’s latest military buildup as anything out of the ordinary.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “does not think there’s any remotely imminent threat to Kyiv” at the moment, a source close to the president told BuzzFeed News on Monday, reacting to the partial US withdrawal.
“The fact that the US was the first one to announce this” — this being the voluntary departures and mandatory withdrawals — “is extremely disappointing and quite frankly these Americans are safer in Kyiv than they are in Los Angeles ... or any other crime-ridden city in the US,” said the source.
The source close to Zelensky said the president’s office viewed the US move as “utterly ridiculous” and symbolic of what it views as “US inconsistency.”
“On the one hand, [Washington tells Ukraine] how we should democratize. We stand with you. It's your right to determine to join the West. We will stand with you against Russian aggression,” the source said, mimicking messages of support from the US to Ukraine in the past. “Then Russia turns up the temperature and they’re the first to leave.”
The State Department and US Embassy didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Zelensky has tried to keep Ukrainians calm and to avoid panic as warnings from Western governments reverberate in Kyiv. In a televised address to the nation last week, the president told his people, “What’s new? Isn't this the reality for 8 years? Didn’t the invasion start in 2014? Did the threat of a large-scale war appear only now? These risks existed…they haven't become bigger. The excitement around them has grown.”
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said it has noted the US decision but felt it was too soon.
“While we respect right of foreign nations to ensure safety & security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one & an instance of excessive caution,” tweeted Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko.
“There is a lot of misinformation, manipulation, and fakes in the Ukrainian and international media to spread panic among Ukrainians and foreigners, scare business, undermine the economic and financial stability of our country. … It is important to soberly assess risks and remain calm,” he told the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
Another Ukrainian government official told BuzzFeed News that the US move risked causing confusion in Ukraine and could lead some people here to wonder whether their government is keeping information from them or downplaying the Russian threat.
The State Department said its decision was made “out of an abundance of caution due to continued Russian efforts to destabilize the country and undermine the security of Ukrainian citizens and others visiting or residing in Ukraine” and that the Ukrainian government had been consulted about the step. A senior State Department official said there had been no new intelligence gathered in the past 24 hours that prompted the move.
The UK’s Foreign Office announced a similar move shortly after the US announcement. And diplomats from other Western embassies in Kyiv who spoke to BuzzFeed News anonymously, because they were not authorized to discuss internal matters, said their governments were also considering the withdrawal of staff and/or family members of employees in Kyiv.
“Some Embassy staff and dependants are being withdrawn from Kyiv in response to growing threat from Russia,” the UK’s Foreign Office announcement reads. “The British Embassy remains open and will continue to carry out essential work.”
The US decision has also frustrated some of those whom it affects. The spouse of one US embassy employee told BuzzFeed News Monday that they were told to look for commercial or private travel out of Ukraine within the next 7 to 10 days and that if they couldn’t return, the embassy would pack up and send their belongings to them in the US at a later time.
They were not told if or when they would be able to come back, the family member said.