MODERATOR: Good morning, everyone, and thank you so much for joining today’s background briefing. Today we will be joined by a senior administration official who will discuss the recent decision regarding the ordered departure at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. To reiterate, the contents of this briefing this morning are on background and they are embargoed until the end of the call.
For your information, however not for reporting purposes, I’d like to let you know that we are joined by [Senior State Department Official]. Please refer to the [Senior State Department Official] as the senior State Department official. We’ll start with some opening remarks and afterwards we will resume to taking your questions.
[Senior State Department Official], take it away.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Moderator]. Good morning, pleased to be with you this morning, and really appreciate your attention to this important issue.
Last night on – late on February 11 in Washington, as you have seen, we directed most remaining embassy staff still located in Ukraine to depart the country immediately. And as you have seen in parallel with that direction, we have updated our Travel Advisory to note that change in the official U.S. Government posture and presence in the country, and to again reiterate that American citizens should leave immediately via commercial means or private vehicle.
As of Sunday, February 13, we are suspending consular services at Embassy Ukraine, so American citizens will not be able to secure routine support with passport issues, visa services, any of the other routine consular services that we customarily provide from our embassies.
As part of our enduring commitment to support our fellow citizens, we will continue to maintain some capacity to provide emergency consular services in Lviv. But I want to stress these will be emergency consular services, and routine services will only be available for American citizens who might be in Ukraine today, in neighboring countries at our diplomatic and consular facilities in those countries.
Now these developments mean for private American citizens that it isn’t just time to leave Ukraine; it is past time for private citizens to leave Ukraine. We have no higher priority than the safety and security of our fellow citizens, including our fellow U.S. Government employees, and we do a great deal to provide support for our fellow citizens. But as you know, there are real limits to what we are able to do in a war zone. We fervently hope and continue to work intensively to try to ensure that Ukraine does not become a war zone, and as you saw Secretary Blinken working actively this morning to try to prevent that outcome with Foreign Minister Lavrov.
However, it appears increasingly likely that this is where this situation is headed, towards some kind of active conflict. And that is why we are reducing our staff to a bare minimum while we still have the ability to get our official people out safely and in a predictable fashion.
Even while we are taking these steps to reduce our official footprint, we’re of course continuing to support the Ukrainian Government and the Ukrainian people consistent with our strategic partnership with Ukraine and consistent with our principled support for Ukrainian sovereignty and its territorial integrity.
Security assistance continues to flow into the country with deliveries of ammunition yesterday and, I believe, scheduled for today. And so that continues moving in even as we bring our own people out and encourage private citizens to leave.
Let me say one other thing before I turn to your questions. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in war zones as an official American. They are inherently volatile, they’re unpredictable, and they are extremely dangerous, by definition, as a war zone. And once a country or a region, in terms of a region within a country, becomes an active conflict zone, we will have very little ability, we have very little ability, to help our fellow citizens.
And so that is why you are continuing to see this constant drumbeat to encourage our American citizens to leave and to help them have realistic expectations about what the U.S. Government will and will not be able to do for them in a conflict. And you’ve seen colleagues from the White House reiterating that American citizens should not expect the U.S. military is going to come rescue them in Ukraine at the last minute. That’s not going to be happening in this scenario and that’s why it is past time for them to leave Ukraine.
So with that, I’m happy to take your questions.
MODERATOR: Let’s start with the line of Christina Ruffini, please.
OPERATOR: Christina Ruffini, your line is open. Please, go ahead. Once again, Christina Ruffini, your line is open.
QUESTION: Yes, I’m speaking. Can you hear me? Hello?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, I can hear you.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Thank you, everybody. I’m wondering if you can say, when did you notify Ukraine you would be evacuating the embassy? And can you give us any idea of how many embassy staff are going to stay behind in Lviv? Is the chargé going to relocate there as well? And is the number of Americans who’ve registered with the U.S. Government saying “hey, we’re here, we’re in Ukraine” still around 7,000, or is that increased in recent days? Thank you very much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. So as you would expect, we’ve been in constant contact and dialogue with the Ukrainian Government, with senior Ukrainian officials, about many facets of this unfolding crisis, but to include our own posture within the country. And we – those discussions, that dialogue with them, included discussions yesterday about our plans to further reduce our footprint in the country.
I want to emphasize – you used the term “evacuating” the embassy. We are not closing the embassy. We are not suspending operations of the embassy within the country. We are further reducing at this time the number of staff that we have in country to conduct only the most essential business at this time. We will have some staff relocating to Lviv. For reasons of security I’m not going to get into specific details of how many people we’re going to have in Lviv and how many will be staying in Kyiv at this time.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Matt Lee, please.
OPERATOR: Matt Lee, your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, good morning. Can you hear me?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes, I can, Matt.
QUESTION: Hi. Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Listen, I know you don’t want to get into the numbers, but can you just say – can you give us just an idea of the people who will stay in Kyiv? What are they going to be doing – not the numbers, but what actually will they be doing?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. So we’re planning to try to maintain the core functions of our embassy as long as possible with a reduced number of people. So we are going to maintain staff sufficient to be able to continue working closely with the Ukrainian Government to be able to ensure we’ve got the best possible information for our senior leaders and the President about what’s happening broadly in society, what the Ukrainian Government is telling us about how the situation is unfolding.
As I noted, we are going to maintain personnel so we can provide emergency consular services, and then we will have sufficient staff to provide the security and support and communications required to enable the team that remains behind to stay in touch with Washington, and to do so as safely as we can under the circumstances.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Nick Schifrin.
OPERATOR: Nick Schifrin, your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks very much. Good morning. I’m wondering if you would describe the diplomats and the consulate in Lviv as kind of a fallback, or if you would not be comfortable with that language.
And then a larger question because you’re talking about the conversations with the Ukrainian Government – obviously, the Ukrainian Government has been very public about some of the disagreements that it’s had with U.S. intelligence. From your perspective, can you characterize the nature of the conversation between U.S. officials and Ukrainian officials, and whether you believe that they’re on the same page? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I wouldn’t characterize the presence we will have in Lviv as a fallback. I would characterize it as ensuring that we can maintain our ability to perform core diplomatic functions in a period of great uncertainty where, in that space where Russia takes military action, I think prudence requires us to assume, to plan for, and prepare for a worse-case scenario. And a worse-case scenario would obviously involve substantial Russian attacks on the Ukrainian capital.
And Russia has a very capable military with substantial combat power, and should it choose to utilize a significant piece of that combat power against the Ukrainian capital, there’s plenty of opportunities, even with restraint and respect for diplomatic facilities, for things to go wrong. So we are essentially diffusing our people to reduce the risk that – should this tip quickly into an active conflict – that we have reduced the risk to official personnel to the best of our ability under the circumstances.
With regard to our conversations with Ukrainian officials about this matter, they’ve been very professional, and the Ukrainians understand why we are taking these steps even if all of them don’t necessarily agree, as you noted, with our threat assessment and with our assessment of the extent to which potential conflict is imminent.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Kylie Atwood, please.
OPERATOR: Kylie Atwood, your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you for doing this call. A question about the embassy in Kyiv. What kind of actions are – excuse me – is the State Department taking now to assure safety of any documents there? Is there any document destruction that has begun?
And can you just be a little bit clearer? I mean, did you pick Lviv because it is on the western side of Ukraine, which would be further away from any potential impending fighting? Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. So we in all of our diplomatic facilities constantly maintain a close eye on the classified equipment and classified information holdings that the embassy has in a period of – has actively in the embassy. And every embassy has guidelines to keep those holdings to the minimum required for normal operations. When we get into these kinds of situations we always, as a matter of course, reduce those holdings, reduce that volume of equipment appropriately to reflect the unpredictability of the situation. And just as we do in other circumstances, have done in other circumstances like this in the past, we’re taking those appropriate, prudent steps as part of our contingency planning for those worst cases that I mentioned.
With regard to Lviv, we’re shifting some people there in part because of its closer proximity to U.S. diplomatic and consular facilities in neighboring countries so we can maintain close coordination with colleagues in those neighboring countries and ensure that, should military action on the part of Russia begin, we can move those people safely should we decide to do so.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Missy Ryan.
OPERATOR: Missy Ryan, your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I just wanted to ask, I know that you said that you and also Jake Sullivan said yesterday that the U.S. military is not going to be coming in to help Americans. But is the United States doing anything currently to organize departures for American citizens other than providing information about commercial routes out? Are you organizing buses or anything like that in the way that’s happened in the past in order to facilitate the departure of folks from Ukraine? Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure, good question. We are not engaged in those activities, because up to this point in time there have been ample opportunities via normal commercial means, whether that’s commercial flights, whether that’s train service to neighboring countries, whether that’s the ability to leave via private vehicle driving across neighboring – the border to neighboring countries.
All of those options have been available to American citizens, and very few of the American citizens who have been in touch with us in recent days have expressed an inability to physically get themselves out of the country. Those who have been contacting us have been looking for help getting new passports or securing visas for non-American resident – or non-American citizen family members that they may have. So it’s been of that nature in terms of the service and support we’ve been providing.
We are not going to be in a position, again, as we unfortunately are seeing increasing signs that we’re heading toward those worse-case scenarios even while we continue intensive efforts to prevent those from occurring. Nonetheless, we’re not going to be in a position in those worse-case scenarios to be organizing evacuation convoys for Americans. And that is, again, why we are reiterating to them that it is past time for them to leave.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to Vivian Salama.
OPERATOR: Vivian Patami, your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Thanks, [Senior State Department Official]. Thanks, everyone, for doing the call. I wanted to actually follow up on something that Nick and Kylie had asked, and then I’ll ask another question, if possible.
Just with regard to the facility in Lviv, obviously we don’t have a consulate, if I’m not mistaken, there. And so is this a facility that – a makeshift facility that you all created because of the need to move staff there? I mean, if you could explain a little bit more of sort of where they’re going to be operating out of, and whether or not this was something that was established a while ago, or is it something established just in response to this crisis?
And my main question that I wanted to ask because I’m just a bit unclear: Are those who are being ordered to leave, are they coming back to D.C. or are they going to other countries? Is it a mixed bag? If you can kind of shed light on where they’re going to actually be stationed in the interim until things go back to normal, I guess. Thanks.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. So most of the personnel who are – who are departing Ukraine will be at least temporarily coming back to the States, where they will continue – many of them – to work on Ukraine. As this crisis continues to unfold, we’ve got an enormous amount of policy work, an enormous amount of operational coordination to support the many lines of effort the U.S. Government has underway. And so they’ll be supplementing colleagues who are already assigned in Washington in performing a lot of that work.
Some of them may go to neighboring countries to support their colleagues in our embassies and consulates there, depending on how this situation unfolds. I can envision a number of scenarios in which our ongoing efforts to both support Americans who have managed to depart Ukraine, but also through our efforts to continue to provide assistance to the Ukrainian Government and the Ukrainian people, that’s going to create additional work for those embassies and consulates, and we want to make sure we’re staffed appropriately to conduct those activities.
With regard to the work we’re going to be doing from Lviv, I want to be really upfront, straightforward here: It is not a facility. It is not something we have constructed, leased, planned for for a substantial period of time. Conceptually, this is much more like a group of people from the embassy temporarily working in another city, just as we would if we had a visit by senior U.S. Government officials or members of Congress or a trade show or some other activity that required a group of our people to temporarily work from another location. We – in normal times, we deploy our personnel to different parts of a country from – other than the capital city or the city in which we might have a consulate. And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re just unfortunately having to do it in conditions that are frankly much more perilous for the Ukrainian people.
MODERATOR: Let’s take a final question from Charlotte (inaudible).
OPERATOR: Charlotte, your line is open. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this call. I was wondering if American citizens have been following your advice to leave Ukraine and if you know how many are remaining.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you. We don’t keep track of how many American citizens are located in any country consistent with our democratic values and principles. So we rely on American citizens to tell us when they are present in a particular country, and we have a couple of ways we try to get them to do that. But of course, they’re free to advise us or not.
So very difficult for us to estimate at any given time how many American citizens are present in any country, and that includes Ukraine. A couple thousand American citizens have informed us in recent days that they are present in the country. We’re in active contact with them to understand whether or not they are planning to leave. A percentage of them have indicated they wanted to leave. Some of those people have left already. Some of those people we have, again, provided services to to enable them to leave.
And there’s another substantial part of that group that have said they’re choosing to remain in Ukraine. And even while we strongly urge them to reconsider and advise them to leave because of the dangers that we foresee, we fully respect their right to make their own choices. And people have – there are many reasons why people might resist leaving, including if they’re long-term residents of Ukraine.
But again, from our perspective, we are doing everything possible to underscore to American citizens the dangers of remaining in the country due to the unfolding crisis and the escalating crisis, and reiterating to them that our ability to help them through that crisis, during that crisis, is going to be extremely limited, and they cannot have any reasonable expectation that the U.S. Government is going to be able to rescue them if they find themselves in harm’s way in a war zone.
MODERATOR: Thank you all again for joining today’s background briefing. The briefing has concluded and the embargo is lifted. Have a great rest of your Saturday.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you.