U.S. Allows Most Embassy Staff to Leave Moscow, Minsk Over Ukraine War

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has been reduced in size, and diplomatic service in Minsk completely suspended, the State Department said on Monday.

A notice attributed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken said it "authorized the voluntary departure ... of non-emergency employees and family members" from the embassy in Russia's capital.

"We took these steps due to security and safety issues stemming from the unprovoked and unjustified attack by Russian military forces in Ukraine," it said.

"We ultimately have no higher priority than the safety and security of U.S. citizens, and that includes our U.S. government personnel and their dependents serving around the world," said Blinken.

The U.S. consulates in Yekaterinburg—about 870 miles east of Moscow—and Vladivostok in the Russian Far East had already been suspended in the last two years.

The statement came hours after most of Western Europe closed its airspace to Russian aircraft.

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U.S. Embassy In Moscow Downsized, Minks Shuttered
A Russian flag flies next to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia, on December 7, 2021. Amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the State Department announced the authorized departure of non-emergency staff and family members from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow on February 28, 2022. The U.S. Embassy in Minsk was shuttered on the same day. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russian troops have been advancing toward Kyiv since President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale offensive on February 24, but rocket forces inside Russia and Belarus have been directly involved in the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, now entering its fifth day.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry reported several dozen dead and hundreds more injured on Monday afternoon as a result of Russian rocket attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, which is roughly 300 miles west of the capital. Graphic images circulating on social media in the aftermath of the shelling showed civilians with partially missing limbs.

The escalation of hostilities comes as U.S. officials said Ukrainian armed forces and its territorial defenders had put up a fierce resistance to slow Putin's probing forces. But the rocket barrage also happened as President Volodymyr Zelensky dispatched a delegation to attend ongoing peace talks on the Ukraine-Belarus border.

U.S. officials said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko—a close ally of Putin—was likely to allow the country's paratroopers to join the war.

Over the weekend, U.S. and European leaders announced punishing economic sanctions against Moscow in response to the aggression. The moves resulted in the Russian ruble plunging to a historic low on Monday as the country was cut off from the SWIFT payment system and its central bank was barred from using foreign currency reserves.

Meanwhile, individual European nations have taken the decision to further isolation Russia from the rest of the continent by closing their airspace to Russian aircraft. Moscow responded in kind by barring Russia-bound European airliners.

A day before its operations were reduced, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow urged all American citizens to depart the country as soon as possible.

"An increasing number of airlines are canceling flights into and out of Russia, and numerous countries have closed their airspace to Russian airlines. U.S. citizens should consider departing Russia immediately via commercial options still available," it said.

The UN Refugee Agency said on Monday that more than half a million people had already fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began last week. They included an estimated 281,000 people entering Poland, 84,500 in Hungary, 36,400 in Moldova, 32,500 in Romania and 30,000 in Slovakia.