Senior State Department Officials On Posture of U.S. Embassy Kyiv

MODERATOR:  Thank you very much, and thanks to everyone for joining this call, especially on a Sunday evening on such short notice.

As a reminder at the top, the briefing today is on background.  We have joining us this evening two senior State Department officials who will discuss the recent decision regarding the authorized of ordered departure at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine.  To reiterate, the contents of this briefing are on background, and they are embargoed until the end of this call.  For your awareness only but not for reporting, we have two senior State Department officials on the line.  We have with us [Senior State Department Official One].  We also have [Senior State Department Official Two].  Again, in your reporting, you can refer to our briefers as senior State Department officials.

We will first hear from our briefers this evening, and then we will look forward to taking your questions.  So with that, I will turn it over to our first senior State Department official.  Please go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Well, good evening, everyone, and thanks so much for joining us today.  I’m glad that my consular colleague is here to speak to the important changes we’ve just made to our Travel Advisory for Ukraine with updated advice for U.S. citizens.

Before I turn it over to her, I would like to underscore three key principles.  First, as you know, we’ve authorized the departure of some U.S. Government employees, while we have ordered the departure of all family members of U.S. Government employees at our embassy in Kyiv.  The State Department has also elevated our Travel Advisory for Ukraine to Level Four – Do Not Travel due to the increased threat of Russian military action.  I would note that the Travel Advisory was already at Level Four – Do Not Travel due to COVID-19.  These decisions were made out of an abundance of caution due to continued Russian efforts to destabilize the country and undermine the security of Ukrainian citizens and others visiting or residing in Ukraine.  We have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens, and this includes our U.S. Government personnel and their dependents, and the security of our facilities overseas.

Why did we make this decision now?  Do we believe a Russian invasion is imminent?  As President Biden has said, military action by Russia could come at any time.  The United States Government will not be in a position to evacuate U.S. citizens in such a contingency, so U.S. citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly, including by availing themselves of commercial options should they choose to leave the country.

We continue to pursue the path of diplomacy.  But if Russia chooses further escalation, then 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.  We are taking this action now because of Russia’s aggressive actions towards Ukraine.  It is Russia that has amassed upwards of 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders.  It is Russia that is conducting disinformation operations and fomenting unrest.  As to President Putin’s intentions, we don’t know if he has yet made up his mind to invade, but he is building the military capacity along Ukraine’s borders to have that option ready at any time.

Second, let me be clear: these are prudent precautions taken for the sake of the safety of U.S. citizens and government personnel, and they in no way undermine our support for or our commitment to Ukraine.  The United States commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering.  The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv continues to operate, and the Chargé d’Affaires, Kristina Kvien, remains in Ukraine.

In addition to our diplomatic coordination, we are assisting Ukraine with new lethal defensive security assistance, including ammunition for the frontline defenders of Ukraine.  The first of several shipments for Ukrainian armed forces, totaling $200 million, arrived in Kyiv on January 22nd, yesterday, and more will arrive in weeks to come.  With this new authorization, the United States has committed more than $650 million of security assistance to Ukraine in the past year and more than $2.7 billion in total U.S. security assistance to Ukraine since 2014.  As President Biden told President Putin, should Russia further invade Ukraine, the consequences will be severe, and the United States will provide additional defensive material to Ukraine above and beyond that already provided.

Finally, in regard to Russia, we have been consistent in our message.  There are two paths, dialogue and diplomacy or escalation and massive consequences.  Over the past weeks, you’ve seen us make intense and sustained efforts to pursue diplomacy.  But while we continue to pursue peace, we must be clear-eyed about the reality if Russia chooses escalation: it will face massive consequences.

So at this time of escalated tension, we urge President Putin to take steps to de-escalate this crisis so the United States and Russia can pursue a relationship that is not based on hostility or conflict.  And with that, I’ll turn it over to [Senior State Department Official Two].  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Thank you very much.  Good evening, everybody, and I’m very glad you could join.  I represent the Bureau of Consular Affairs today to reiterate our message to U.S. citizens currently in Ukraine.

As my colleague stated, the State Department has elevated our Travel Advisory for Ukraine to Level Four – Do Not Travel due to the increased threat of Russian military action.  The Travel Advisory was already at Level Four – Do Not Travel due to COVID concerns.

Our recommendation to U.S. citizens currently in Ukraine is that they should consider departing now using commercial or privately available transportation options.

To be clear, President Biden has said military action by Russia could come at any time.  The United States Government will not be in a position to evacuate U.S. citizens in such a contingency.  So U.S. citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly, including by availing themselves of commercial options should they choose to leave the country.

We always encourage U.S. citizens to read the entire Travel Advisory themselves, but I would like to reiterate a few key points and ask you to help us share them.

This elevation of the Travel Advisory level comes as there are reports Russia is planning significant military action against Ukraine.  We want U.S. citizens in Ukraine to know that 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.

We want U.S. citizens in Ukraine to be aware, for their planning purposes, that Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine would severely impact the U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide consular services, including assistance to U.S. citizens in departing Ukraine.

Our Travel Advisory update asks all U.S. citizens in Ukraine to complete an online form so that we may better communicate with them.  This is especially important if they plan to remain in Ukraine.  That form is available on travel.state.gov and on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

And as always, we urge U.S. citizens to register with our Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, STEP.state.gov, so they can receive important messages about Ukraine, including timely Alerts and updates to Travel Advisories.

Again, we recommend that U.S. citizens in Ukraine: one, consider departing now using commercial or other privately available transportation options; two, use the online form in our updated Travel Advisory to tell us their plans, so that we can best conduct our ongoing contingency planning; and three, register in STEP to ensure you receive alerts and guidance from the State Department.

With that, I turn it back to our Moderator.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you both.  Operator, if you wouldn’t mind repeating the instructions to pose a question, please.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  If you have not already done so, you need to press 1 then 0 on your telephone keypad to place yourself in queue for questions.  To remove yourself at any time, you may repeat the 1 then 0 command.  Please stand by for the first question.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to the line of Matt Lee, please.

OPERATOR:  And your line is open.

QUESTION:  Yeah?  Can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  We have you.

OPERATOR:  Yep.

QUESTION:   Yes?  Okay, cool.  Thanks.  Look, I know, and I don’t want to get into this – we spar over this all the time.  Do you have any idea how many Americans are registered under the STEP program in Ukraine?  I know that you do, and so I want to stop you from saying oh, well, it changes all the time.  How many are registered right now?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I can take that.  Look, you’ve probably even sparred with me, but I’m going to have to tell you what we generally tell everybody.  U.S. citizens —

QUESTION:  Yeah, but —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I’m sorry, if I can continue.  U.S. citizens aren’t required to register with us, and so it’s not a number that we are able to share because we don’t have a solid number, and it’s not helpful to share estimated numbers with you.  So unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to give you a solid number.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to the line of Halley Toosi, please.

OPERATOR:  One moment, please.  Your line is open.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Guys, can you just please clarify, like, exactly what this order is?  Like, you’re ordering the relatives of all of the diplomats to leave, but you’re giving, like, the option to some or all of the diplomats themselves to leave?  Like, it’s written in this really confusing way, and I’d be really grateful if you could clarify what it actually means.  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  I’m happy to jump in, and then my colleague may want to jump in as well.  So what the U.S. Department of State is doing is authorizing the voluntary departure – so that means authorized departure – authorizing the voluntary departure of non-emergency U.S. Government employees.  At the same time, the department has ordered the departure of family members of U.S. Government employees at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

So authorized departure gives these employees the option to depart if they wish.  Departure is not required.  Family members, however, are required to depart the country, and the U.S. Embassy’s authorized and ordered departure status will be reviewed in no later than 30 days.  So I hope that’s helpful, and I don’t know if my colleague wants to add something.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, and I’ll – thank you.  Yeah, I’ll just jump in and say that under the no-double-standard policy, we are in turn advising U.S. citizens of what we are authorizing and ordering our official personnel to do, so that they have the same information that our official staff does.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to the line of Kylie Atwood, please.

QUESTION:  Hi, everyone.  Thanks for doing this.  I know there’s been a lot swirling about this over the weekend, so we appreciate it.  Quick question, I am wondering – I understand that you guys are doing this out of an abundance of caution.  But how do we explain why this abundance of caution action was taken now versus taken yesterday or the day before or the day before that? Is there anything that has changed to add additional threat to U.S. Government personnel in Ukraine over the last 24 hours or so that triggered this?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Well, thanks a lot for that question.  As President Biden has said, military action by Russia could come at any time.  We are continuing to pursue the path of diplomacy, but if Russia chooses further escalation, then the security conditions, particularly along Ukraine’s borders in Russia-occupied Crimea, in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine, are predictable and can deteriorate with little notice.  So we are taking this action now because of Russia’s aggressive actions towards Ukraine.  As you know, it’s Russia that has amassed upwards of 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, and we continue to see that troop buildup.  It is Russia that is conducting the disinformation operations and fomenting unrest.

Now, we still don’t know what President Putin’s intentions are.  We don’t know if he’s made up his mind to invade.  But we so clearly see his building the military capacity along Ukraine’s borders to have that option ready at any time, and that’s the backdrop for these decisions that were made today.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to the line of John Hudson.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  I wanted to ask:  How much are U.S. officials mindful of the evacuation in Afghanistan, how that played out, when they are – when they came upon this decision to go to this phase now?  And I’m wondering how much of a concern there was in creating a panic in Kyiv that residents of Kyiv are unsafe at the moment.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Well, I can say for my part, this is very much a decision that is focused on the situation in Ukraine and what is best for Embassy Kyiv and American citizens in Ukraine.  Your question about how this perhaps will be interpreted by Ukrainians or how it will play out there – I just want to be clear that these are prudent precautions that in no way undermine our support for or commitment to Ukraine.  And we continue to avow our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and I reviewed in my opening comments the assistance, the ongoing assistance, we’re giving to Ukraine.  I can say that the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv is going to continue to operate in an uninterrupted way to support Ukraine at this critical moment.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Michael Gordon, please.

QUESTION:  Can you please, just some nitty gritty questions?  How many personnel are in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv?  How many family members are there who you are ordering to depart?  Are they all going by commercial?  Is that how they’re leaving?  Could you please provide just some – and how many American citizens do you guesstimate are in Ukraine at this time?  I understand you don’t know for sure if they don’t register, but what’s your estimate?  Can you give us some of these numbers?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Well, now it’s my turn to disappoint you as well.  So we’re not providing those kinds of public details regarding our plans.  All of these actions are taken as part of ongoing efforts to ensure the safe and secure operations of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Ukraine, and we’ll be continuing to work with our Ukrainian partners to pursue our national security interests while we are simultaneously prioritizing the safety of staff.  So we are going to be continuing to take these sorts of prudent precautions.  But happy to turn it over to my colleague in case she’s like to add more to that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, and I will just say again we just don’t guesstimate.  And because we don’t have solid numbers, we have estimates, I’m just not going to be able to share that with you.  Unfortunately, U.S. citizens do not always register in STEP, and a lot of U.S. citizens are dual nationals and they enter Ukraine on their Ukrainian passports so we wouldn’t have data from the host country officials either.  So I don’t have a number for you.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  Barbara Usher, please.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) Kylie’s question.  I take it that nothing has actually changed in the security situation from yesterday to today in terms of why you’re taking this – making this decision now.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  Yes, that is based on the answer I gave about why now, is there something that’s happened imminently.  And it is the totality of the situation that we’ve been watching and the decision that based on this military buildup, based on how we see these developments, we felt this was the right moment to take this step with regard to the embassy in Kyiv and to give the same message to American citizens in Ukraine.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  We’ll go to Joel Gehrke.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks for doing this.  I wondered, shifting focus just a little bit, if you’re – as we’re talking about potential threats in Kyiv, how do you think about the role of Belarus in a contingency that would threaten Kyiv, and do you – just given how close the capital is to the Belarusian border?  And do you have options for how to prevent a threat from that corridor that you don’t have for preventing a threat from the Russians directly from Russia?  In other words, do you have more options for stopping Belarus from doing things that you – that you wouldn’t be able to have without – without taking a really great risk with Russia?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  So I would say that we’ve been watching this situation around Ukraine with great care for some months now, and the concern has been that there are multiple – if Russia chooses to engage in further military aggression, it has the opportunity to launch that attack from different directions based on where it can launch those incursions against Ukraine.

So we are continuing to watch with care what’s happening in Belarus.  We have, of course, noted with concern the so-called exercises that Russia says it will be doing in Belarus.  And this is part of that larger picture that we will watch with care as it unfolds.  And we are continuing to speak quite publicly about our concerns about Russia’s military buildup, whether it’s on Russia’s border with Ukraine or whether it’s in Belarus.  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Andrea Mitchell, please.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  I joined late, so stop me if you’ve asked – if this has been asked, but how much if any of this has to do with the political instability in Ukraine and the British report which may or may not be closely connected to the sanctioning that you all announced this week of the four Ukrainians, including two sitting members of parliament?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  We’ve been clear that we’re very concerned about attempts to destabilize Ukraine internally.  And you mentioned the reports from the UK that we heard about yesterday, and I’m not going to comment on specific intelligence reports.

What I can tell you is this:  We have been concerned and have been warning about exactly those kinds of tactics for weeks.  And as you know, we’ve talked about that publicly, that Russia could try, might try, in some way to topple and replace the Ukrainian Government.  You will have noted that just a few days ago we sanctioned four Russian agents in Ukraine who were engaged in destabilizing activities, and this is very much part of the Russian playbook that we have seen in the past as well.

So I think it’s important for people around the world, whether it’s Europe, the U.S., or beyond, that they understand the kinds of things that Russia could be preparing to do in Ukraine.  And of course, we talked about a false flag operation recently, and we do think it’s possible that they could create a false pretext for going in.  So I think it’s important that all of us be aware that this is something that’s been in the Russian playbook and it’s something we should be keeping a very close eye on.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:  We have time for a final question or two.  We’ll go to David Shepardson.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this call.  Just to follow up on some of the other questions, again, I know you can’t provide us with a concrete estimate of all American citizens in Ukraine.  But based on the registration data, you can at least give us a sense of the minimum number of Americans.  Can you tell us if it’s hundreds or thousands or give us kind of any sense of the minimum number?  And do you have sort of specific evacuation plans in the event that the Russians do invade and you have to get the remaining embassy personnel out of the embassy?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  So I’ll take another stab at this.  We do not provide numbers of U.S. citizens living in or traveling to a particular country.  U.S. citizens are not required to register their travel to a foreign country with us, and we do not maintain comprehensive lists of U.S. citizens residing overseas.  Our embassies overseas compile estimates of U.S. citizens in their countries for contingency planning purposes, but these estimates can vary and are constantly changing.  So we do not want to provide figures that cannot be considered authoritative.  So let me leave it there unless my colleague wants to jump in.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  Yeah, no, you said it perfectly.  And I just want to say – just take an opportunity, too – I’m not sure if the question was about official personnel evacuation or private Americans.  But again, I just want to say given that the President has said military action by Russia could come at any time, the U.S. Government will not be in a position to evacuate U.S. citizens.  So U.S. citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly, including by availing themselves of commercial options should they choose to leave the country, and commercial options are available now.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:   We’ll conclude with the line of Josh Wingrove, please.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much.  Can we just circle back to the clarity – you talked about authorizing voluntary departure of non-emergency U.S. Government employees.  Now, are there those – are there those employees anywhere other than Kyiv?  In other words, does that capture a broader group than the second group, which is departure of family members for workers at the embassy in Kyiv?  And more broadly, these measures are obviously focused at the embassy, but you’re talking about, in particular, instability along the eastern flank.  But of course, Kyiv isn’t in the regions you’re talking about.  So forgive me for circling back to the Belarus question:  Is it the U.S. position that the threat to Kyiv in particular is rising?  Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE:  I want to go back to the quote from President Biden about Russia could engage in fuller military aggressive against Ukraine at any time.  And Russia has a very large and very strong military army, and we certainly want to be prepared for any of those contingencies.  So when we’re talking about authorizing the voluntary departure of non-emergency U.S. Government employees, we are talking about U.S. Government employees, and that’s through the embassy in Kyiv.  And then we’re ordering the departure of family members of those U.S. Government employees.

So it isn’t – it is the holistic view of the buildup we have been seeing over months now and the concern that we’re now at a point where President Putin could make a decision at any time to launch an invasion.  I also want to be clear that we’re not saying we know that will happen.  None of us know what President Putin will decide.  And at the same time that we’re doing this prudent planning and taking these measures, we are still very engaged on a diplomatic path.  As you saw, Secretary Blinken spent last week in Ukraine and then in Germany, and then he met with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Lavrov, in Geneva.  So the diplomacy path is also something that we’re putting a great deal of focus on.

So we have this dual approach of trying to deter Russia from engaging in military action and making clear what the massive consequences of such military aggression could be, while at the same time we’re continuing to pursue this path of diplomacy.  So I just want to make sure everyone keeps that holistic frame as they take on board the news of the day.

And again, if my colleague wants to jump in, please do.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO:  I think that was absolutely right.  Thanks.

MODERATOR:   I want to thank both of our speakers.  I want to thank everyone for joining this evening.  Just a reminder this call was on background.  You can attribute what you heard to senior State Department officials.  And with that, the call is concluded and the embargo is lifted.  I hope everyone has a good night.