(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. ordered family members at its embassy in Kyiv to leave “due to the continued threat of Russian military action,” signaling a further turn of the screw in the standoff over Ukraine.
While the U.S. renewed warnings that Russia could send forces into Ukraine at any time, the New York Times reported that President Joe Biden is considering deploying more troops to Eastern Europe and the Baltics. The tension follows U.S.-Russian talks last week that failed to open a conclusive path to ending the standoff.
“There are reports Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine,” the State Department said in an advisory on Sunday. “The security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders, in Russia-occupied Crimea, and in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are unpredictable and can deteriorate with little notice.”
The actions reflect the U.S. position that Russian President Vladimir Putin could launch an invasion at any time, senior State Department officials said Sunday, speaking with reporters on condition of anonymity. Sunday’s decision doesn’t change or undermine U.S. support for Ukraine and the embassy in Kyiv continues to operate, they said.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called the move “premature,” with spokesman Oleh Nikolenko saying there has been “no significant change in the security situation recently.”
Russia, which has repeatedly denied that it plans to invade Ukraine, said the U.S. move was strange, Interfax reported.
The U.K. has withdrawn some of its staff and dependents from its Kyiv embassy “in response to growing threat from Russia,” according to a tweet from the Foreign Office. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, told reporters Monday the bloc has no plans to ask the families of diplomats in Ukraine to leave.
Biden is contemplating deploying more troops to eastern Europe and the Baltics, and considering sending warships and aircraft to NATO allies, the New York Times reported. That could involve sending 1,000 to 5,000 troops to eastern Europe, a number that could be boosted tenfold if necessary, according to the report.
The U.S. officials downplayed questions about what prompted the departure order and questions about the risk of an invasion from neighboring Belarus, where Russia has been sending troops and armor to within a few miles of the Ukrainian border for joint military drills that start Feb. 10.
The U.S. has taken note of the Belarus exercises and remains of the view that the overall situation could change and deteriorate quickly, the officials said. The U.S. doesn’t know if Putin has made up his mind about an invasion, they said.
NATO has approximately 4,000 soldiers in the Baltic countries led by the U.K., Canada and Germany and with an unidentified number of U.S. special forces soldiers in Estonia. Poland hosts about 4,500 U.S. soldiers on a rotational basis.
NATO has announced several deployments of ships and aircraft to members, including Lithuania and Bulgaria.
The advisory also urged U.S. citizens in Ukraine to consider leaving the country now using commercial or other private travel options. U.S. citizens, particularly those planning to stay in Ukraine, were asked to register with the State Department.
Asked earlier Sunday about a possible pullout of diplomats’ families, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Biden administration was “tracking intensely, hour by hour and certainly day by day” whether Kyiv was still safe.
Blinken rejected pressure to immediately escalate sanctions on Russia for its military buildup, saying it would limit western options in the future.
He said the U.S. has focused with its European allies on building up the threat of “massive consequences” for Russia to dissuade Putin from sending forces into Ukraine and on leaving the door open to diplomacy.
“The purpose of those sanctions is to deter Russian aggression and so if they’re triggered now, you lose the deterrent effect,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
He said the U.S. is tracking a U.K. warning that Russia is plotting to install a pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine as part of the Kremlin’s playbook for encroaching on its neighbor.
“We’ve been concerned and have been warning about exactly these kinds of tactics for weeks,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
The U.S. officials declined to provide an estimate of how many Americans are in Ukraine, or how many family members are affected by the departure order.
(Updates with Ukraine comment, U.K, EU reaction from fifth paragraph.)
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