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As Americans Consider Evacuating, Ukrainians Prepare for a Fight
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As Americans Consider Evacuating, Ukrainians Prepare for a Fight

An impending Russian invasion brings echoes of Afghanistan.

In the days before Taliban fighters captured Afghanistan’s capital city, authorities such as the Afghan National Security Forces, Ashraf Ghani’s government, and the U.S. administration sought to maintain the appearance of control over a rapidly deteriorating situation. As several evacuees have told The Dispatch, the messaging was so strong that many Kabul residents didn’t grasp the severity of the situation until Taliban gunfire rang out on the city’s outskirts.

On August 12—three days before the city’s fall—State Department spokesman Ned Price assured reporters that, despite a “prudent reduction” in its personnel, the U.S. embassy in Kabul remained open to carry out its diplomatic mission in Afghanistan.

Addressing the unfolding crisis in Eastern Europe, Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed Price during a press briefing this week. “I authorized the voluntary departure of a limited number of U.S. employees and ordered the departure of many family members of embassy personnel from Ukraine,” Blinken said. “And given the continued massive build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders, which has many indications of preparations for an invasion, these steps were the prudent ones to take.” 

But, he added: “I want to be clear that our embassy in Kyiv will remain open, and we continue to maintain a robust presence to provide diplomatic, economic, and security support to Ukraine.”

Amid an ongoing diplomatic stalemate and continued Russian deployments to various points along Ukraine’s borders, foreign nationals there face choices similar to those in Afghanistan last summer: whether to flee while many Ukrainians—civilians and combatants alike—prepare for a fight. And as was the case six months ago, there’s little consensus on whether evacuations are unnecessary or long overdue.

Blinken’s statements Wednesday follow U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan’s and NATO’s delivery of written responses to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposed security guarantees, which Biden administration officials dismissed as “obvious nonstarters” after their publication this month. In addition to requesting legally binding guarantees to halt NATO’s eastward expansion—both in membership and in military infrastructure—the Kremlin called on the defensive organization to restore its 1997 status quo. Such a move would reverse many of NATO’s existing rotational deployments in Poland and the Baltics. 

Based on Moscow’s reaction and public statements by member states, the alliance held its ground in the written responses. “We can’t say that they took our concerns into account,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. The U.S. State Department also moved to expel more than two dozen Russian diplomats from Washington this week.

In all, about 120,000 Russian troops are now stationed in the border regions, with many more reportedly en route. Accompanying them are some of the lethal hallmarks of modern warfare: long-range artillery, ballistic missiles, multiple rocket launchers, and fighter aircraft. Field hospitals and other logistical infrastructure also portend a forthcoming Russian invasion.

But some analysts caution that the deployments could be a ruse to extract maximum concessions from the U.S. and other NATO allies. “[Putin] is doing everything to create the impression that Russia will invade within the next few weeks, so he’s moved the troops, moved the support, moved the logistics, removed his diplomats. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s going to,” Peter Dickinson, editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert, told The Dispatch. “There’s no way of knowing in advance whether he is genuine or whether it is an intimidation tactic.”

Moscow’s campaign to stir up hysteria inside Ukraine has already begun. In addition to cyberattacks of likely Russian origin targeting Ukrainian government websites, unknown actors have been circulating false bomb threats in schools across the country at record rates. Last year, there were more than 1,100 false alarms. In the first month of 2022 alone, there have been more than 300.

“There are efforts to create panic in the society. There is a new spate of false alarms,” Maryana Drach, director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service, told The Dispatch. “We spoke to different schoolteachers, parents, and many are distressed.”

Ukrainian officials are now urging their populace and Western partners not to play into Putin’s scare tactics. “There are no rose-colored glasses, no childish illusions, everything is not simple. … But there is hope,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address on January 25, inadvertently echoing Ghani in the final days of the war in Afghanistan. “Protect your body from viruses, your brain from lies, your heart from panic.”

Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, dismissed the ordered departures of embassy staff family members by the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia as “premature” and born of “excessive” caution. “There are 129 diplomatic missions in Ukraine,” he added. “Of these, only four have declared the departure of the family members of personnel.” The U.S. embassy in Kyiv did not immediately respond to The Dispatch’s request for comment.

“I think there’s a lot of caution,” said Dickinson, who plans to remain in Ukraine. “I think that the American embassy, in particular, very much has the Afghanistan fiasco in mind.” 

The Biden administration has begun to urge private American citizens in Ukraine to leave using commercial options still at their disposal—another recommendation likely guided by the missteps of last year—but some experts think departures should have begun much earlier. 

“We should be evacuating citizens out of Ukraine today,” Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian-born co-founder of Silverado Policy Accelerator and former CTO of CrowdStrike, told The Dispatch in an interview last week. “Even if [the Russians] don’t go after Kyiv, there will be bombing raids, there will be artillery strikes. The airspace will likely be impacted or fully closed, so evacuation will be very difficult later on.”

The U.S. and its NATO allies now hope last-minute arms shipments to Kyiv might shift Putin’s calculus, particularly given the Ukrainian armed forces’ demonstrated combat readiness. This week alone, the U.S. delivered 283 tons of ammunition and equipment to Ukraine, along with additional javelin missiles and other anti-tank weaponry. The Biden administration also plans to transfer five Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters, which formerly belonged to the Afghan Air Force, to Ukraine’s defense ministry. 

Several other NATO allies—including Denmark, the U.K., the Netherlands, and Spain—have also dispatched material and tactical support to the region. Germany, which has come under recent scrutiny for its tepid backing of Ukraine’s sovereignty, offered 5,000 helmets as its contribution. “What kind of support will Germany send next?,” asked Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko. “Pillows?”

“While the Ukrainians might be overmatched, they could still make it very, very painful and make the Russians fight for every square inch,” Jim Townsend, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO, told The Dispatch. “Putin doesn’t want a lot of body bags going back.”

Drach, the Kyiv-based director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian service, noted that the Ukrainian people are no strangers to armed conflict. “It is important to remember that Ukrainians live in the state of both hybrid war and also real conflict in the east of the country, with real casualties, for years,” she said. “In Ukraine, you would often hear the opinion that it’s not about Ukraine only, it’s about the resilience of the West. It’s a much bigger issue.”

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.