Russia and the US said they would begin evacuating staff from their embassies and consulates in Ukraine on Saturday as western allies prepared to launch a last-ditch effort to convince Moscow to withdraw its forces.
The US state department ordered “most US direct hire employees” to leave Kyiv on Saturday “due to the continued threat of Russian military action,” the embassy said.
Though US diplomats will maintain “a small consular presence” in Lviv in western Ukraine for emergencies, the embassy urged all US citizens to leave Ukraine, after warning on Friday that Russia was preparing to launch a full-scale invasion as early as next week.
“US citizens in Ukraine should be aware that the US government will not be able to evacuate US citizens in the event of Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine. Military action may commence at any time and without warning,” the embassy said.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Saturday that Moscow had decided to “optimise” its staff at its embassy and three consulates in Ukraine “out of caution over possible provocations from the Kyiv regime or third countries.”
US president Joe Biden and France’s Emmanuel Macron are set to speak to Russian president Vladimir Putin on Saturday in a last-ditch effort to convince him to draw back Russian forces.
German chancellor Olaf Scholz plans to visit Kyiv on Monday before meeting Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.
On Friday the US, UK, Japan, Israel and the Netherlands urged their citizens to leave Ukraine and said they would withdraw some of their diplomats.
British troops who have been training Ukrainian forces would leave this weekend, armed forces minister James Heappey told the BBC, though UK ambassador Melinda Simmons said she would remain in Kyiv.
The Foreign Office said British nationals in Ukraine should leave while commercial means were still available and should not expect consular support in the event of Russian military action.
Russia has repeatedly denied it has plans to invade Ukraine but has warned of “the most unpredictable and grave consequences for European security” if the west does not agree to two draft security proposals it published in December.
Talks with the US and Nato over Russia’s grievances against Nato last month ended inconclusively.
Moscow has claimed that US and European warnings about a Russian invasion of Ukraine are cover for a potential “provocation”.
Zakharova said Russia suspected the US and UK, the first western countries to announce embassy drawdowns, “know about some sort of military actions being prepared in Ukraine that could significantly complicate the security situation”.
Russia’s embassy and consulates “will continue to fulfil their main functions,” Zakharova added.
On Friday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the White House believed there was a credible prospect of Putin ordering an attack on Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on February 20.
The US believed that an invasion was “likely to begin with aerial bombing and missile attacks that could obviously kill civilians without regard to their nationality”, followed by a “massive” ground invasion, Sullivan said.
Though the White House believes Putin has not made a final decision, Russia has built up more than 130,000 troops along its border with Ukraine and in neighbouring Belarus, as well as weaponry that could be used for a “rapid assault” on Kyiv.