The United States has ordered the families of all American staff at the US Embassy in Ukraine to leave the country amid heightened concern that Russia, which has massed troops on the border, is about to invade.
In a statement on Sunday, the State Department also said that non-essential embassy staff could leave Ukraine at government expense and that all Americans should consider departing immediately.
Russian military activity has fuelled growing concern in Washington and other Western capitals that it is planning to invade Ukraine, after annexing Crimea in 2014. Moscow has insisted it has no plans for an invasion.
The US Embassy in Kyiv warned that “military action by Russia could come at any time and the United States government will not be in a position to evacuate American citizens in such a contingency, so US citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly.”
Speaking on Sunday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rebuffed calls to immediately impose economic sanctions on Russia, saying that doing so would undercut the West’s ability to deter any potential Russian aggression against Ukraine.
“When it comes to sanctions, the purpose of those sanctions is to deter Russian aggression. And so if they are triggered now, you lose the deterrent effect,” Blinken told CNN in an interview on Sunday.
Blinken said if a “single additional Russian force goes into Ukraine in an aggressive” manner, that would trigger a significant response.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told The Washington Post last week he supported imposing sanctions now, a view endorsed by Republican legislators on Sunday.
“We need to act now. When it comes to pushing back against Russia, we need to show strength and not be in a position of … appeasement,” Republican Senator Joni Ernst, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told ABC News.
Democratic Senator Chris Coons, an ally of US President Joe Biden, argued for passing bipartisan US legislation to “show resolve and determination and apply some sanctions now”, but said it was best to keep the strongest sanctions in reserve.
“The very strongest sanctions, the sorts of sanctions that we use to bring Iran to the table, is something that we should hold out as a deterrent,” he told ABC News.
Asked if US hands were tied over Ukraine because of a need for Russian support in talks on reining in Iran’s nuclear programme, Blinken told CBS News: “Not in the least.”
On Saturday, the first shipment of the US’s $200m security support package for Ukraine arrived in Kyiv, the US embassy said.
Russia rejects UK accusations
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Sunday rejected a United Kingdom claim that the Kremlin is seeking to replace Ukraine’s government with a pro-Moscow administration under former Ukrainian legislator Yevheniy Murayev.
Murayev, the leader of a small party with no seats in parliament, denied the claim.
“This morning I already read in all the news publications this conspiracy theory: absolutely unproven, absolutely unfounded,” Murayev said on a video call.
He denied having any contact with Russian intelligence officers and dismissed the idea that he could be in league with the Kremlin as “stupid”, given he was placed under Russian sanctions in 2018.
The UK’s Foreign Office on Saturday also named several other Ukrainian politicians it said had links with Russian intelligence services.
“The Kremlin has said that these accusations are absolutely false and that their main goal at spreading this disinformation, as they call it, is to show yet again that these NATO countries are headed by ‘Anglo-Saxons’, who are trying to incite further tensions and increase the disputes between this country and Ukraine,” said Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, who is in Mosco.