The US embassy in Ukraine has requested the evacuation of all non-essential staff amid increasing fears of an imminent Russian invasion and the arrival overnight of arms deliveries promised by President Joe Biden, according to a CNN report.
US evacuations are likely to start “as early as next week”, the US cable news network said, citing a source close to the Ukrainian government. It marks the embassy’s shift in focus towards “helping Ukraine bolster its defences in the face of growing Russian aggression”.
The embassy in Kyiv also said on Twitter that the first batch of fresh US assistance had arrived in Ukraine, which includes weaponry described as “200,000 pounds of lethal aid, including ammunition for the frontline defenders of Ukraine”.
It follows Biden’s assertion on Wednesday in a White House address that he now expected the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to “move in” and invade Ukraine, in an act that would mean large-scale war returning to continental Europe for the first time in a generation.
“My guess is he will move in,” Biden said in response to questions about whether an invasion was coming. “He has to do something.”
It was also reported on Saturday that political advisers from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany would hold “Normandy format” talks on eastern Ukraine in Paris on 25 January. Reuters attributed the development to a source in Putin’s administration.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s chief negotiator, Andriy Yermak, confirmed that a meeting in Paris was planned but told Reuters a preliminary date had been set for 26 January.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, held talks with Russian diplomats in Switzerland on Friday in an attempt to avert conflict, with Blinken and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, striking a conciliatory tone and the diplomatic process ongoing.
“We didn’t expect any breakthroughs to happen today,” Blinken said after the meeting. “But I believe we are now on a clearer path in terms of understanding each other’s concerns.”
Britain and Russia’s defence ministers will meet after Russia’s Sergei Shoigu accepted an invitation from the UK’s Ben Wallace to discuss mutual security. They will meet in Moscow.
“The secretary of state has been clear that he will explore all avenues to achieve stability and a resolution to the Ukraine crisis. We are in communication with the Russian government,” a senior UK defence source told PA Media.
It comes after Downing Street warned Russia would be “punished” if the country pushes ahead with any “destabilising action” in Ukraine, as an estimated 100,000 Russian troops sit on the borders of Ukraine.
No 10 said if Putin launched an offensive there would be a “package of sweeping measures” launched by western allies against the Kremlin.
But Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign affairs committee, demanded advance action, saying the UK should be ready to financially support Ukraine so it is prepared for an invasion.
“I’d like to see all of us going further, because one of the things that’s delaying the ability of the Ukrainian people to mobilise their armed forces to meet any such invasion is, that has a huge effect on any country’s economy,” Tugendhat told the BBC. “If you take hundreds of thousands of people out of the workforce in order to stand guard they will have a real impact on jobs and lives in other sectors.”
Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the commons defence committee, echoed concerns of a nearing military antagonism and said he believed a Russian invasion of Ukraine could be “imminent”.
“Putin is taking full advantage of a weakened west. We are looking risk-averse, somewhat timid,” he told the BBC. “Putin’s ultimatum demanding Nato push back, of course that was dismissed but that’s given him the pretext to say that there is an aggressor and that he must act.”
“We see these combat-ready troop formations. He has actually boxed himself into a corner because so much effort has been put into this,” Ellwood added. “He also recognises that he will never again be as strong as this to take advantage of the west’s weakness. I suspect that an invasion is now imminent.”