US withdraws Kyiv embassy staff in face of Russian threat
Biden tells Putin Ukraine invasion would bring decisive response
Reuters Honolulu, United States/Moscow
The Jakarta Post
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday the risk of Russian military action in Ukraine was high and imminent enough to justify the departure of much of the staff at the US Embassy in Kyiv, which the State Department announced earlier. “We ordered the departure of most of the Americans still at the US Embassy in Kyiv. The risk of Russian military action is high enough and the threat is imminent enough that this is the prudent thing to do,” Blinken told a news conference in Honolulu. Most embassy staff were ordered to leave Ukraine immediately because of the threat of an invasion by Russia, with the department saying it appeared increasingly likely that the situation headed toward “some kind of active conflict”. This added to the State Department’s call earlier this week for private US citizens to leave Ukraine immediately. Speaking after meeting his Japanese and South Korean counterparts, Blinken reiterated that a diplomatic solution remained possible and the way to pursue that was for Moscow to de-escalate. “The diplomatic path remains open. The way for Moscow to show that it wants to pursue that path is simple. It should de-escalate, rather than escalate,” Blinken said. Decisive response US President Joe Biden told Russia’s Vladimir Putin on Saturday that the West would respond decisively to any invasion of Ukraine, adding such a step would produce widespread suffering and isolate Moscow. In the latest effort to manage growing hostility, the two men spoke by phone for an hour a day after Washington and its allies warned that the Russian military, which has 100,000 troops massed near Ukraine, could invade at any moment. Moscow has dismissed those warnings as “hysteria.” Neither side said there had been any breakthroughs. A senior Biden administration official said the call was professional and substantive, but that there was no fundamental change. The Kremlin said Putin told Biden Washington has failed to take Russia’s main concerns into account, and it had received no “substantial answer” on key elements including NATO’s expansion and the deployment of offensive forces to Ukraine. The senior Biden administration official said it was unclear whether Putin was committed to diplomacy even as he agreed to stay in touch with Biden. The call took place as Israel, Portugal and Belgium joined the list of countries that have urged their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately. Australia said on Sunday it was evacuating its embassy in Kyiv, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling on China to speak up for Ukraine and not remain “chillingly silent” as Russia massed military forces on its border. Morrison’s comments to a news conference followed criticism by China of a meeting of the US, Australian, Japanese and Indian foreign ministers last week in Melbourne. “The coalition of autocracies that we are seeing, seeking to bully other countries, is not something that Australia ever takes a light position on,” Morrison said. Telephone diplomacy Biden was due to compare notes with French President Emmanuel Macron, who spoke with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday, according to the White House. Biden’s top military and diplomatic officials held calls with their Russian counterparts. Putin also spoke with Alexander Lukashenko, leader of Ukraine’s northern neighbor Belarus, which is engaged in major joint military drills with Russia. After Macron’s call with Putin, a French presidency official said there were no indications from what Putin told Macron that Russia is preparing an offensive against Ukraine. “We are nevertheless extremely vigilant and alert to the Russian [military] posture in order to avoid the worst,” the French official said. Russia said on Saturday that it had decided to “optimize” its diplomatic staff numbers in Ukraine, fearing “provocations” by Kyiv or others. It said its embassy and consulates in Ukraine continued to perform their key functions. A US official on Saturday said there was no telling what Putin has decided, but that the steps Russia is taking “in plain sight” make them fear the worst. Zelenskiy calls for calm Biden told Putin during their call that the US is pushing for diplomacy but ready for “other scenarios”, the White House said. In Kyiv, several thousand Ukrainians filed through the center of the city, chanting “Glory to Ukraine” and carrying banners that said “Ukrainians will resist” and “invaders must die”. Zelenskiy, who attended police drills in the southern Kherson region, echoed Washington’s assessment that a Russian attack could happen at any time, but stressed that it was important for Ukrainians to remain calm. “The best friend of our enemies is panic in our country,” he said.