The State Department formally announced the departure Saturday, saying it had ordered “most US direct hire employees” to leave Kyiv “due to the continued threat of Russian military action.”
Two sources with knowledge of the evacuation plans — including one who provided images of a conversation they had with an embassy employee about the evacuation — earlier told BuzzFeed News that employees were told Friday morning that they were to pack their bags and prepare to depart Ukraine.
On Saturday afternoon, the US Embassy was a hive of activity. Several diplomatic vehicles were queuing to enter the compound. Several embassy employees were seen coming out of the gated building carrying bags over their shoulders.
BuzzFeed News saw personal and desktop items inside the bags. The employees declined to speak to reporters, but one man held up his possessions and said, “I have all my stuff with me,” when asked if he was ordered to depart Kyiv immediately.
The embassy was closed for regular work, but a Ukrainian woman who said she was married to a US citizen told BuzzFeed News she was able to retrieve her passport, which she had submitted in order to be granted permission to travel to the US. She said that her husband works for an American company and he had been “ordered to leave" Ukraine by Sunday.
A limited number of diplomats could be relocated to western Ukraine, according to the Associated Press, which first reported news of the embassy pullout. The embassy had previously discussed the possibility of temporarily relocating its staff to western Ukraine, BuzzFeed News reported this week.
"Despite the reduction in diplomatic staff, the core embassy team, our dedicated Ukrainian colleagues, and [State Department] and U.S. personnel around the world will continue relentless diplomatic and assistance efforts in support of Ukraine’s security, democracy, and prosperity," the US Embassy tweeted.
On Saturday afternoon, more than 2,000 Ukrainians marched through central Kyiv, waving blue-and-yellow national flags and berating Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian army. They chanted “Glory to Ukraine!” and "Death to enemies!"
The group stopped on Kyiv’s Independence Square, where they sang the Ukrainian national anthem, "Glory and Freedom of Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished."
Also on Saturday, the Pentagon ordered all US troops in Ukraine to leave the country and relocate elsewhere in Europe. The US has military personal stationed at the embassy in Kyiv and trainers in western Ukraine.
“The Secretary made this decision out of an abundance of caution — with the safety and security of our personnel foremost in mind — and informed by the State Department’s guidance on U.S. personnel in Ukraine,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a news release.
“This repositioning does not signify a change in our determination to support Ukraine’s Armed Forces, but will provide flexibility in assuring allies and deterring aggression,” he added.
The evacuation came after new intelligence obtained by Washington indicated Russia may invade Ukraine in the coming days.
“The way [Putin] has built up his forces and put them in place, along with other indicators that we have collected through intelligence, makes it clear to us there is a very distinct possibility that Russia will choose to act militarily, and there is reason to believe that could happen on a reasonably swift timeframe,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday. “The Russians are in a position to be able to mount a major military action in Ukraine any day now.”
The Kremlin has denied that it is planning an attack on Ukraine. But in a move that will likely lend credence to the assessments that it is, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced Saturday that it would draw down its staff at its embassy and consulates in Ukraine. The ministry said that Moscow fears “possible provocations from the Kyiv regime or third countries” that could “seriously complicate the security situation.”
The US Embassy evacuation order came down as the White House urged all Americans to leave Ukraine within the next 24 to 48 hours, warning that Putin could order the more than 100,000 troops he has positioned around the country to attack “at any time.”
US officials also requested that US members of the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission, which has been tracking and monitoring ceasefire violations in eastern Ukraine, be pulled out of the region, an OSCE official told BuzzFeed News.
US officials also asked for US members of the monitoring group, more than 40 people, to be out of the region by Feb. 15. The Kyiv Post first reported on the OSCE members’ withdrawal.
On Friday, the State Department was also reaching out to individual US citizens, including a BuzzFeed News photographer in Kyiv, who remained in Ukraine, asking them if they had made arrangements to leave the country.
Meanwhile, Russia is holding military drills in its western regions bordering Ukraine and joint exercises with Belarus in that country. The war games include nearly 100 battle tactical groups, sophisticated missile systems, fighter jets, and tanks and are expected to end Feb. 20.
“At the end of the exercises is when [Russian forces] will be ready for some kind of attack,” Andriy Zagorodnyuk, the former defense minister of Ukraine, predicted in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
Ukraine is conducting its own military drills in parallel with Russia’s.