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Threat of Russian invasion pushes US to pull embassy officials out of Kyiv

The State Department announced the move Monday as Russia looks closer to invading Ukraine.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The U.S. is closing its embassy in Kyiv and moving officials to the western city of Lviv "due to the dramatic acceleration in the buildup of Russian forces," Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced Monday.

"I have no higher priority than the safety and security of Americans around the world, and that, of course, includes our colleagues serving at our posts overseas. My team and I constantly review the security situation to determine when prudence dictates a change in posture," Blinken said in a statement.

Lviv sits near Ukraine's border with Poland, out of the way of the approximately 130,000 Russian troops who sit stationed along Ukraine's eastern border. With the Russian military conducting ammunition exercises on the land and around Ukrainian ports, U.S. officials warn that Russia is on the precipice of invading the former Soviet territory.

Blinken said the Kyiv embassy's closure and the temporary relocation of officials to Lviv is a protective measure.

"These prudent precautions in no way undermine our support for or our commitment to Ukraine," Blinken said. "Our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering. We also continue our sincere efforts to reach a diplomatic solution, and we remain engaged with the Russian government following President Biden’s call with President Putin and my discussion with Foreign Minister Lavrov. The path for diplomacy remains available if Russia chooses to engage in good faith. We look forward to returning our staff to the Embassy as soon as conditions permit."

U.S. President Joe Biden held separate phone calls over the weekend with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladmir Putin about Russia's military buildup on the Ukrainian border and the possibility of a Russian invasion.

The White House says Biden reiterated to President Zelensky on Sunday that the U.S. and its allies would “respond swiftly and decisively” to any increased Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Biden spoke with Putin for over an hour on Saturday. A senior administration official described the call with Putin as “professional and substantive” but said the call signaled no decisive shift in the ongoing talks between the U.S. and Russia.

“There was no fundamental change in the dynamic that has been unfolding now for several weeks, but we believe that we have put ideas on the table that would be in our and our allies’ interest to pursue that would enhance European security, and that would also address some of Russia’s stated concerns, just as we have been clear that we are committed to upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and the rights of states to choose their own security arrangements,” the senior administration official who briefed reporters about the call said.

Calling the potential for an attack a “distinct possibility,” the official said it was unclear after the call whether Russia has any interest in diplomacy rather than moving forward with military aggression against Ukraine.

Deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters Monday that if Russia chooses to invade, an attack "could begin this week despite a lot of speculation that it would happen after the Olympics."

"We're seeing new Russian forces have been arriving at the Ukrainian border every day. As we have said before, we're in the window when an invasion could begin at any time," Jean-Pierre said. 

For those more skeptical of an invasion, Russian experts point to the high economic and military costs a military conflict would have on Russia. Nevertheless the U.S. president has urged Americans to evacuate Ukraine.

The U.S. is continuing a two-pronged approach to Russia’s militarization on its border with Ukraine, with the Biden administration continuing diplomatic talks while also amping up military resources in the region.

Biden spoke Monday on the phone with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the countries' shared support for Ukraine and ways to reinforce NATO's resources in the region, according to the White House.

As America pushes its European allies to prepare sanctions in the event of an invasion, the White House announced the deployment of 3,000 U.S. forces to Poland on Saturday.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is headed to Poland, Lithuania and Belgium this week. Austin plans to "meet with allied defense ministers and NATO leadership to discuss Russia's military buildup in and around Ukraine" in Belgium, the department said in a statement.

Lawmakers in Congress have been scrambling meanwhile to adopt legislation that would deter Russia from taking action against Ukraine. As talks drag on, however, some are worried that the conflict could escalate before legislation gets done.

Senator Bob Menendez, who heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation last month to sanction the Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline and provide economic assistance to Ukraine in the case of an invasion.

Democrats and Republicans nevertheless remain torn over whether to sanction Russia before an invasion occurs as a means to weaken the country's power — a policy largely supported by the GOP — or pass sanctions that would go into effect if Russia takes further aggressive action against Ukraine, the approach supported by most Democrats.

As lawmakers attempt to reach a bipartisan framework for sanctions, they are considering policies that would target Russian banks and apply in the case of Russian cyberattacks as well as physical acts of military aggression.

Top House leaders met early Monday with national security adviser Jake Sullivan to discuss Ukraine, and a briefing is scheduled for Monday afternoon with Senate leaders.

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