The UK and US have ordered partial withdrawals from their embassies in Ukraine, warning of a rising threat of Russian military action against the country.
Britain on Monday ordered a number of its embassy staff and family members to leave Ukraine. The move came after the US ordered family members of its embassy staff to leave Kyiv because of the risk that Russia would take “significant military action”.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said the security situation in parts of Ukraine was “highly unstable” with ongoing clashes between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed armed separatists. Around half the embassy staff in Kyiv had been told to return to London with their families, it said.
The US state department said on Sunday all US citizens should consider departing immediately because “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 warnings come after weeks of mounting tension along the eastern border of Ukraine, where Russia has massed more than 100,000 troops.
Senior state department officials said the travel order was not triggered by new security threats, but by the fact that “military action by Russia could come at any time”. They said the US government “would not be in a position to evacuate US citizens in such a contingency”. Both the US and UK said that their embassies would stay open.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry called the US embassy withdrawals “premature”.
Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the ministry, said: “While we respect [the] right of foreign nations to ensure safety and security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one and an instance of excessive caution.”
Russia has warned of “the most unpredictable and grave consequences for European security” if the US does not concede to its demands to roll back Nato’s expansion.
The US has sought to find common ground with Moscow on issues such as arms control. It has promised to send a written response to Russia’s draft security proposals this week after talks with Moscow in Geneva and Brussels failed to reach a breakthrough.
But it has warned that Russia’s core grievances against the transatlantic military alliance — which would in essence rewrite the entire post-Cold War security order if met — were unacceptable.
On Sunday, Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, told CBS the US remained committed to diplomacy with Russia but was building up “defence and deterrence”.
“We are preparing massive consequences for Russia if it invades Ukraine again,” he told NBC.
US and European allies have vowed sanctions against Russia for aggression against Ukraine and sought to expose its plans by releasing selected intelligence, but they have struggled to agree on how to respond.
Blinken said the US had been “concerned” for weeks about Russian tactics in the country that included an effort by President Vladimir Putin to replace Kyiv’s government.
Moscow’s efforts to destabilise Ukraine were “part of the Russian playbook”, he said, after the UK issued a stark warning of an alleged plot to install a puppet government in Kyiv.
The UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said in an unusual statement late on Saturday that it had evidence Russia was planning to install a pro-Moscow leader in Ukraine.
It named the figure preferred by the Kremlin as Yevhen Murayev, a former Ukrainian MP who owns a major TV station, but did not provide evidence. Murayev denied the claim.
Russia’s foreign ministry dismissed the accusations as “nonsense” and accused the UK of escalating tensions around Ukraine.
The Russian embassy in London said: “The logic is simple: let no day pass without accusing Russia of preparing an ‘imminent’ invasion of Ukraine, and, on this concocted ‘basis’, try to play the ideological leader of the ‘free world’ defending itself from ‘autocrats’.”
Tensions among western allies spilled out into the open again at the weekend as the head of Germany’s navy resigned after saying Putin “only wants respect” and that Crimea — which was annexed by Russia in 2014 — would never be returned to Ukraine.
Blinken insisted that the “Germans very much share our concerns” about Russian aggression and were part of a united front between Europe and the US.
“I am very convinced there will be a united response to whatever Russia does,” he said, whether Moscow sends forces into Ukraine or resorts to using “hybrid actions, cyber attacks, efforts to bring a government down”, he told CBS.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Washington