WASHINGTON — When U.S. officials became convinced this month that Russia could invade Ukraine, they begged U.S. citizens to leave the country immediately — adding a stark addendum.
There would be no rescuers for those left behind, they said.
It was a point that President Biden drove home last week by insisting that he would not use the military to take out someone trapped by a Russian attack.
“All Americans should leave Ukraine,” he told NBC News, adding that he could not risk a clash with Russian troops that could trigger World War III.
The fallout from last summer’s chaotic evacuation of Americans from Afghanistan seems to have shaped Mr Biden’s approach to the crisis in Ukraine in several ways, from more explicit coordination with European allies, who in some cases felt sidelined in planning for Afghanistan, to greater transparency about the most appalling intelligence assessments.
But in Ukraine and beyond, US officials have also focused on a more specific concern: that Americans living in foreign danger zones would mistakenly believe that an Air Force C-17 cargo plane — such as those that transported thousands from Afghanistan during the final days of the US withdrawal – would be their last resort to escape.
In warnings to Americans abroad in recent months, first in a teetering Ethiopia and now in Ukraine, Biden officials have made it clear that the rescue operation in Afghanistan was a one-off.
“The United States doesn’t usually do mass evacuations,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week. Lest anyone remember last summer’s events in Kabul, she pointed out that “the situation in Afghanistan was unique for many reasons.”
Ms. Psaki referred to the 16-day military evacuation of US diplomats, contractors, aid workers and others from Kabul airport just before and after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. More than 100,000 Afghans who helped the United States during the country’s 20-year war, along with their relatives, were also fled.
The Biden administration called the operation a success, even though it faced scathing criticism for failing to anticipate the Afghan government’s rapid collapse and failing to begin evacuations earlier. Some US officials noted with frustration that their repeated public calls for Americans to leave the country in the months before the Taliban takeover had been largely ignored.
Since then, the president has been determined to avoid anything resembling a repeat of that operation, which was tragically interrupted by an August 26 suicide bombing that killed as many as 170 civilians and 13 U.S. Marines manning a gate outside the Kabul airport.
“Invasion clearly remains possible,” Biden said in a national speech on Tuesday. “That is why I have asked several times that all Americans in Ukraine leave now before it is too late to leave safely.” The president added that this was why he also ordered the temporary relocation of the US embassy from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to Lviv in western Ukraine, near the border with Poland.
Biden officials made a similar, albeit less widely reported, message a few months ago as rebels advanced towards the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. As analysts warned of bloody urban fighting and a possible government collapse, the State Department began issuing nearly daily statements urging Americans to leave.
As is now the case in Ukraine, foreign ministry officials specifically warned that the airlift in Kabul should not be considered a precedent.
“I think there’s a misconception that what we’ve seen in Afghanistan is something the US government can do anywhere and everywhere in the world,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a news conference on Nov. 15. that no one “should expect to be in a position to undertake anything similar to what we have seen in Afghanistan.”
In recent days, the United States has also warned Americans against traveling to Belarus and Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova, both of which border Ukraine.
The State Department estimated in October that about 6,600 U.S. citizens lived in Ukraine, many of them dual nationals, along with an unknown number of tourists and travelers.
Ronald E. Neumann, a former US ambassador to three countries, including Afghanistan, said it could be difficult to convince Americans that they were on their own.
“They don’t come out, and then they think the military is going to get them,” said Mr. Neumann, who is now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
But it’s one thing to talk abstractly about leaving Americans behind, and another to do it, he acknowledged. “Some congressman will yell for you to find Mary Jo,” he said. “And you have to do it, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Without passing judgment on the decision to move the Kiev embassy, Mr. Neumann noted that US diplomats had historically taken great risks to help Americans escape danger. During World War II, he said, embassy officials in France and Poland helped Americans even after the German offensives had begun. “Diplomates went out in the middle of air raids to find Americans and take them to embassies,” he said.
The US Embassy in Moscow also held a skeleton crew there after the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941. times, according to an official history from the State Department.)
Understand the conflict in Ethiopia
US officials said even US diplomats at the embassy in Kiev, who were protected by a Marine contingent, were in too much danger to stay there. And former Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran of war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, said he made no mistake in the decision.
“I think it was the right decision. The last thing the government wanted were embassy victims or hostages, and they came close in Afghanistan,” he said. A US military investigative report obtained by The Washington Post , contained complaints that the State Department was dangerously reluctant to evacuate its embassy in Kabul.
Mr. Crocker noted that he believed Moscow was involved in the unsolved kidnapping and death of US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph “Spike” Dubs, in 1979, just before the Soviet invasion.
Still, some US diplomats said moving US embassy operations ahead of potential hostilities was an overreaction rooted in the memory of the Kabul airlift and perhaps the 2012 terrorist attack on a US compound in Benghazi. , Libya, killing four Americans.
According to a translation of Russian broadcasts circulated within the State Department this week, Russian state media have ridiculed the United States for fleeing what they called a ghost threat.
“While the American [diplomats] Fleeing Kiev, there are still American TV crews scouring the city in search of thrills. However, they must report from the streets where nothing is happening,” the Rossiya 1 network in Moscow reported.
Many current and former US officials believe that US diplomats in general have become too risk averse, especially since the Benghazi disaster, which became a long-standing political flashpoint, with Republicans alleging unproven cover-ups and conspiracies by the Obama administration.
“A world without risk is not a world where US diplomacy can pay off,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in an October speech at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia, where the US diplomatic corps is trained. “We have to accept risks and manage them smartly.”
But in the case of Ukraine, Mr. Blinken is mistaken on the security side.
In an interview with a Ukrainian television channel on Tuesday, he said the decision was made “as a precaution”.
“It’s the wise thing to do,” Mr Blinken added, “because, again, my personal responsibility is for the safety and security of our people.”