Dozens of western diplomats in Kyiv were packing their bags and preparing to leave the city on Sunday evening, as many countries issued a clear warning to all citizens still inside Ukraine: get out now.
Six months after western decision-makers were taken by surprise by the speed with which Kabul fell to the Taliban, politicians in many countries are taking extra precautions over a potential Russian assault that has not yet begun.
Governments of 39 countries have warned against travel to Ukraine, according to a count by the Ukrainian news site Novoe Vremya. Many have also warned that if people do not leave now, they may find it impossible to escape later, amid rumours that Ukrainian airspace could be closed in the coming days.
The US, which has briefed that a full-blown Russian assault on Ukraine could be imminent, has said it is evacuating all but a small group of diplomats from Ukraine, and has reiterated warnings to US citizens that they should leave as soon as possible.
“It isn’t just time to leave Ukraine, it is past time to leave Ukraine,” a senior US administration official said on Saturday. Britain and Germany have also advised their citizens to leave the country immediately.
One of the most significant steps is the decision of Britain, Canada and the US to withdraw its staff from a monitoring mission in the eastern Ukraine conflict zone, run by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), at a time when western intelligence claims Russia may be preparing a “false flag” incident in the region.
The US and Canadian embassies have sent non-essential staff and family members home and are evacuating others to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. American, Canadian and British military trainers in the country have also been withdrawn.
Office space and hotel rooms in Lviv are at a premium as diplomats and businesses temporarily relocate there. Britain’s ambassador, Melinda Simmons, will stay in Kyiv and work with a core team, while other British diplomats have been sent home.
US citizens in Ukraine said they have received calls from the state department warning them to leave as soon as possible.
“It wasn’t an order but it was very strong advice,” said Joseph Davis, a US citizen based in Odessa. He said he had decided to stay for now, as he believed the war scare was overhyped and he had family, friends and colleagues in the city.
For a number of weeks, the messaging of western capitals, particularly Washington and London, has been sharply at odds with the tone taken by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
This has led to mutual irritation, with many foreign officials feeling Zelenskiy, a former comedian, is out of his depth and refusing to take an evident threat seriously. Zelenskiy’s circle, meanwhile, say the constant warnings of imminent invasion coming from Washington are helping to sow panic in the country and are causing economic chaos.
David Stulík, a former EU diplomat in Kyiv, said the evacuations could be part of “strategic messaging” to the Russians to show that the west is taking the situation seriously.
But many Ukrainians expressed frustration with the withdrawals, saying that with the potential shutting down of airspace in the coming days, it felt like Ukraine, not Russia, was being sanctioned.
“Western citizens are ordered to leave, but we don’t have anywhere to go. How should that be perceived by average Ukrainians?” said Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Action Centre.
She said western nations should move immediately to put a stop to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and impose personal sanctions on Kremlin-linked oligarchs, rather than reserve these measures for after a Russian attack.
“If you have intelligence that is really strong enough to evacuate your citizens, then you have strong reasons to act tough on Russia right now,” said Kaleniuk.
Some diplomats in Kyiv say the images of the chaotic withdrawal and evacuation efforts from Afghanistan last year are playing heavily on the minds of decision-makers in western capitals.
In Britain, the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, explicitly made the comparison. “Following the chaos of the evacuation from Afghanistan, we ask the government for reassurance that the right lessons have been learned,” he said.
Others wonder whether the fall of Kabul to the Taliban is a helpful comparison for a country that has land borders with several EU member states in the west.
“Russians, if they entered Ukraine or even Kyiv, would not be chasing local staff of western embassies, and all embassies would continue their work,” said Stulík. However, he said the evacuations were a sensible temporary precaution against the worst-case scenario.
Russia’s foreign ministry has also said it will “optimise” staff at its embassy and three consulates in Ukraine. Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said this was due to “possible provocations from the Kyiv regime or third countries”.
It was not immediately clear how severely the withdrawal of US, UK and Canadian monitors will affect the OSCE mission in eastern Ukraine. The mission had 680 international monitors, according to a January report, of whom 57 were from the US, 40 from the UK and 28 from Canada.
Helga Maria Schmid, the OSCE secretary general, wrote on Twitter that the monitoring mission and other OSCE projects in Ukraine “will continue to fulfil their mandates without interruption”. It is unclear whether other countries will also pull their staff in coming days.
“If I had been given a choice, I would have stayed, but there was definitely no choice about it,” said one American member of the mission, who was in the process of being evacuated for a minimum of 30 days, after which there would be a “security review”.
“There is a bit of head-scratching here about why people are being pulled from an active conflict area for safety reasons, because of a potential conflict that hasn’t manifested yet,” said the US citizen.