Russia Insists Embassy Staff Have Not Been Evacuated From Ukraine Amid Invasion Fears

Russia has rejected a report that Moscow withdrew diplomatic staff from missions in Ukraine before international talks over a build up of Russian troops by Ukraine, as concerns grow over President Vladimir Putin's intentions towards his neighbor.

Citing an unnamed senior Ukrainian security official, The New York Times (NYT) reported that on January 5, 18 people mostly from the families of Russian diplomats, had departed Kyiv and returned to Russia by bus.

Over the following days, 30 more staff reportedly followed, some of whom returned from the Russian consulate in Lviv, in western Ukraine, the NYT reported.

Last week, talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna between NATO, American and Russian officials over Moscow's military presence by Ukraine ended in deadlock.

However, in a statement to Russian news agencies, Russia's foreign ministry dismissed the NYT's claims, insisting that the Kyiv embassy was "operating normally."

Moscow's statement, which made no mention of its consulate in Lviv, is unlikely to ease tensions amid reports that train convoys with tanks, missiles and troops are pushing west through Russia.

The significance of the alleged thinning down embassy staff is unclear. It could send a message over the seriousness of Moscow's demands for a guarantee Ukraine never joins the alliance. It could also suggest an imminent attack was possible, which has been the message coming out of Washington, D.C. and other capitals.

Last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said U.S. intelligence is pointing to Russia staging a "false flag" attack as a pretext for an invasion, which Moscow has repeatedly said will not happen.

Upping the ante was a cyber attack on Ukrainian government websites, which Kyiv blamed Moscow for.

Meanwhile, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, said he believed there is nearly a "50 percent" chance that the current tensions could lead to a "major war."

It comes as Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenko reiterated his support for Putin, announcing Monday that Russian forces and equipment had started to arrive in western Belarus.

Joint military exercises would be held by the borders of NATO members Poland and Lithuania, as part of Operation Allied Resolve starting February, Belarusian state news agency Belta reported.

Raising the prospect that a Belarusian role was part of Russia's calculus, Lukashenko said the "drills should perfect plans to confront Western powers—the Baltics and Poland, and the south—Ukraine."

A senior Ukrainian official told the NYT that Kyiv believes the Russian troops deployed to Belarus would stay in place indefinitely, leaving Ukraine vulnerable to attack from the north, the east and the south.

Melinda Haring, deputy director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council think tank, said "regrettably war is more likely. We've reached a real impasse the Russian and US positions are irreconcilable."

However, she said U.S. intelligence had expected more Russian troops at this point, and the mild winter means that the ground isn't frozen, limiting the ability to move tanks easily.

Full-scale war remains "a live option," Haring said in an analysis last week, but "more likely Putin will strike Ukraine in a way short of war that will cause Europe to wring its hands but stop short of unleashing its harsh package of sanctions."

Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment.

Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman
A Ukrainian Military Forces serviceman near Lugansk village, Donetsk region on January 11, 2022. Russia has rejected a report it withdrew diplomatic staff before international talks over its military buildup by Ukraine. ANATOLII STEPANOV/Getty