WASHINGTON – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered U.S. troops who deployed to Ukraine last year to leave the country and reposition elsewhere in Europe.
The new marching order comes as an estimated 100,000 Russian troops equipped with advanced weaponry line Ukraine’s eastern border and the northern border with Belarus, a Moscow ally.
In November, 160 members of the Florida National Guard, assigned to the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, deployed to Ukraine to train with local forces.
“The Secretary made this decision out of an abundance of caution — with the safety and security of our personnel foremost in mind — and informed by the State Department’s guidance on U.S. personnel in Ukraine,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby wrote in a statement.
“This repositioning does not signify a change in our determination to support Ukraine’s Armed Forces, but will provide flexibility in assuring allies and deterring aggression,” he added.
Earlier on Saturday, a senior State Department official said that the diplomatic staff at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv will be reduced to the “bare minimum.”
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to share details of the State Department’s posture in Ukraine, also issued fresh warnings to U.S. citizens that have not yet departed the country.
“It is past time for private citizens to leave Ukraine,” explained the senior State Department official.
“American citizens should not expect that the U.S. military is going to rescue them in Ukraine at the last minute. That’s not going to be happening in this scenario. And that’s why it is past time for them to leave Ukraine,” the official added.
“We have no higher priority than the safety and security of our fellow citizens, including our fellow U.S. government employees. And we do a great deal to provide support for our fellow citizens. But as you know, there are real limits to what we are able to do in a war zone,” the official said.
Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke in separate phone calls to their Russian counterparts on Saturday morning and urged Moscow to take a diplomatic path and deescalate tensions.
On Friday, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, urged any Americans still in Ukraine to leave immediately.
Sullivan said Russian President Vladimir Putin could launch an invasion of the ex-Soviet neighbor “any day now.”
For months, the U.S. and its Western allies have watched a steady buildup of Kremlin forces along Ukraine’s border with Russia and Belarus. The increased military presence mimics Russian moves ahead of its 2014 illegal annexation of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea, which sparked international uproar and triggered sanctions against Moscow.
The Kremlin has denied that the troop deployment is a prelude to an attack and has instead characterized the movement as a military exercise.