The risk of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is high enough to justify the departure of much of the staff at the American Embassy in Kyiv, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday, while Australia and Canada started to evacuate their diplomats following Western allies.
“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 on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the Australian and Canadian governments have followed the United States in suspending operations at their Kyiv embassies amid fears that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be imminent.
"Given the deteriorating security situation caused by the buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine's border, the Government has directed the departure of staff at the Australian Embassy in Kyiv and temporarily suspended operations at our Embassy in Kyiv," Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a Sunday statement, adding that the embassy's operations would be temporarily moved to the Ukrainian city of Lviv, located further west than the capital, according to the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa).
Canada made a similar announcement on Saturday, namely that the country's embassy operations would move from Kyiv to Lviv. On Saturday, the U.S. announced it was withdrawing most of its embassy staff from the Ukrainian capital.
Consular services at the embassy would cease from Sunday, the State Department said, while a few staff members would be transferred to Lviv, which is situated about 70 kilometers (43 miles) from the Polish border.
U.S. staff at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) started to withdraw by car from the rebel-held city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine on Sunday, a Reuters witness said, amid fears of a possible Russian invasion. The OSCE did not respond to a request for comment. In the OSCE's largest-ever security mission, observers are monitoring the enforcement of a cease-fire for eastern Ukraine, under a peace plan that has largely stalled as both sides trade accusations of violations.
A number of countries have advised their citizens in Ukraine to leave the country after Washington said on Friday that an invasion could happen in the coming days. The U.S. government said that it considers a Russian incursion into Ukraine possible before the close of the Winter Olympics in China on Feb. 20.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has called on Israelis to leave Ukraine as soon as possible.
"We do not know what the developments will be between Russia and Ukraine. Like the rest of the world, we hope that the tension will end without escalation; however, our primary obligation is to look after our Israeli citizens," Bennett says. Significantly more flights from Ukraine to Israel are available, he says. "Here again, I call on Israelis in Ukraine: Return home!"
"Do not take unnecessary risks. Do not wait for a situation in which you will very much want to return but will be unable to do so. Be responsible for your lives and leave Ukraine as quickly as possible and come home."
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told the army to prepare for the possibility of Israelis being evacuated from Ukraine, his office says. Meanwhile
Meanwhile, Kyiv is bracing for unrest, with the capital's Mayor Vitalo Klitschko telling German newspaper Bild am Sonntag that residents are "preparing for the worst."
He said the international community should be aware that Russian President Vladimir Putin's geopolitical ambitions extended to the Baltic states and that Ukraine was "only the beginning." His comments came ahead of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's planned visits to Kyiv and Moscow early next week, the latest in a string of efforts by world leaders to de-escalate the conflict.
Ahead of his first visits as chancellor to Kyiv on Monday and Moscow on Tuesday, Scholz has renewed his warning to Russia, as well as his advocacy of continuing diplomacy in multiple formats.
"It is our job to ensure that we prevent a war in Europe, in that we send a clear message to Russia that any military aggression would have consequences that would be very high for Russia and its prospects, and that we are united with our allies," Scholz told the German parliament's upper house on Friday. "But at the same time that also includes using all opportunities for talks and further development," Scholz said.
Scholz has repeatedly said that Moscow would pay a "high price" in the event of an attack, but his government's refusal to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine or to spell out which sanctions it would support against Russia have drawn criticism abroad and at home and raised questions about Berlin's resolve in standing up to Russia.
Germany's reluctant position is partly rooted in its history of aggression during the 20th century when the country's own militarization in Europe during two world wars led many postwar German leaders to view any military response as a very last resort.
Despite this historic burden, experts say it is of utmost importance now that Scholz stresses Germany is in sync with its European and American allies, especially when he meets with Putin.
"Scholz has to convey a very clear message in Moscow, and it can really only be: There is unity and oneness in the Western alliance. There is no possibility of driving a wedge into the Western alliance, and that must be understood in Moscow. I think that's the most important message he has to convey there," said Markus Ziener, an expert with the German Marshall Fund.
"At the same time, he has to make it clear that the costs are high," Ziener added, as The Associated Press (AP) reported. "That's basically the message that is most likely to catch on in Moscow as well. So a military invasion of Ukraine has significant consequences for Russia."
Scholz has not explicitly said what kind of consequences or sanctions Russia would have to face if it invades Ukraine, but it is clear that the future of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline that seeks to bring Russian natural gas to Germany under the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, is at stake. Biden threatened last week that the pipeline would be blocked in the case of an invasion.
Russia has concentrated more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine's border and launched a series of military maneuvers in the region, but says it has no plans to invade the nation.
Moscow wants guarantees from the West that NATO won't allow Ukraine and other former Soviet countries to join as members, and for the alliance to halt weapon deployments to Ukraine and roll back its forces from Eastern Europe. The U.S. and NATO flatly reject these demands.
That would hurt Russia economically but also cause supply problems for Germany. Construction of the pipeline has been completed, but it is not yet operating.
"Germany doesn't have much leverage, except for saying that it won't approve Nord Stream 2, which is the only political leverage," Claudia Kemfert, the head of the department of energy, transport and environment at the German Institute for Economic Research, said.
"Otherwise, Germany is very susceptible to blackmail. We can't do too much. We have committed ourselves to getting the gas supplies, unlike other European countries we have not diversified our gas supplies and we have dragged our feet on the energy transition. So we did a lot of things wrong, and now we are paying the price," Kemfert added.
It is not surprising, then, that Scholz has stressed the need to keep some ambiguity about sanctions to press Russia to de-escalate and has so far avoided mentioning Nord Stream 2 specifically.
"The hesitancy of Olaf Scholz obviously leads to the fact that one does not really know what the Germans actually want," Ziener said. "With regard to Nord Stream 2, I think there should have been a clear statement that if it comes to a military intervention, then Nord Stream 2 is off the table."
Asked on Friday whether Scholz will be taking any new initiative to Kyiv and Moscow or the positions that are already on the table, his spokesperson, Steffen Hebestreit, replied that he will stick with "the positions that we have already set out."
Scholz can only hope that in his talks with Putin he can dissuade him from taking military action with a face-saving solution, says Ziener.
"He can actually only hope that at the end of this whole round of negotiations there will be a success, that the war is prevented. Then Scholz will be praised for his negotiating skills," Ziener added. "If not, the question will be asked: What was actually the line of the German government?"