After Russia amassed troops and weapons along its border with Ukraine, the US State Department last week ordered family members of staff working at its embassy in Kyiv to leave the country and also urged all US citizens to leave.
In a stern warning, the department said US citizens should leave the country now via commercial flights or other private transportation, saying it may not be able to help them out if Russian troops were invading and conditions were deteriorating.
“U.S. citizens in Ukraine should be aware that Russian military action anywhere in Ukraine would severely affect the ability of the U.S. Embassy to provide consular services, including assistance to U.S. citizens departing Ukraine,” reads the State Department’s travel advisory.
The statement prompted many social media outlets to compare the situation to the chaotic withdrawal of US citizens from Afghanistan, suggesting that Americans will be alone in Ukraine.
In response to Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin on January 23 Tweeter of the State Department’s warning, the conservative group Young America’s Foundation wrote, “Where have we seen this before?”
Where have we seen this before? https://t.co/taM1dpwcXq
—YAF (@yaf) January 24, 2022
On January 25, the group followed up with a Facebook post featuring a screenshot of his tweet and the caption “Unbelievable that Biden didn’t learn from his mistakes with Afghanistan.”
But this is not an appropriate comparison. While some see similarities in the discussion of evacuating Americans, “there is no resemblance between the two,” said Barnett Rubin, senior fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
There were tens of thousands of American citizens in Afghanistan because “the United States had been conducting a joint military-civilian operation there for 20 years, directed against the Taliban, who then took over,” Rubin said. There are likely far fewer Americans in Ukraine, Rubin said.
“There are American citizens in Ukraine for various reasons, as there are American citizens in most countries, for business, employment, tourism, family visits, etc. but they are not part of no U.S. government operation, certainly not a U.S. war on Russia,” he added.
Large-scale military evacuations of American citizens are not common practice, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a Jan. 24 press conference.
“There is no intention that there will be a departure or an evacuation along these lines, so we advise American citizens that they should leave now,” she said. “And, in fact, there is no precedent, beyond Afghanistan, for this to be the way it works.”
The warnings to leave now certainly do not preclude the State Department and the military from stepping in later to help Americans in Ukraine, should the need arise. In 2006, the United States began a large-scale evacuation of citizens from Lebanon amid a battle between the Israelis and Hezbollah, and the military intervened on numerous other occasions.
What happened in Afghanistan?
In Afghanistan, President Biden announced in April that the United States would withdraw its troops from the country by September, ending a 20-year war that began shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda. (The Trump administration had planned an earlier withdrawal.)
As early as April, the United States began urging American citizens to leave Afghanistan. At the time, Biden downplayed the Taliban’s ability to regain control of the country. However, Taliban fighters quickly recaptured government-held territory, meeting little resistance from Afghan security forces and taking control of Kabul by mid-August.
This prompted the United States to close its embassy and evacuate American citizens and Afghans who feared Taliban reprisals for helping the United States during the war.
Chaotic scenes unfolded at Kabul airport in August as the United States began one of the largest military evacuations in history. Eventually, the United States flew 120,000 people, including about 6,000 American citizens, out of the country on military and private flights over the past six weeks before ending operations there on August 30.
What’s happening in Ukraine?
In recent months, Russia has deployed around 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, but it has no troops inside the country, apart from two breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine, reports the New York Times.
Russia’s motivation is unclear, but it could be an effort to restore some control over its neighbors that it lost during the Cold War.
The Pentagon this week ordered 8,500 troops to deploy to Eastern Europe as part of a NATO response force, and Biden warned an invasion by Russia could come at any time. .
Ukrainian officials were unhappy with the US decision to order family members of embassy staff to leave. It was “premature” and “an example of excessive caution”, Oleg Nikolenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a tweet. He said that only a handful of 129 diplomatic missions in Ukraine follow the example of the United States
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy also called for calm, telling residents in a video address that the Russian invasion actually began in 2014 when the country annexed Crimea, the Guardian reported. He accused US officials and the media of creating panic by suggesting war is imminent.
Why early warnings to leave?
US officials fear that if an invasion does occur, their options for helping Americans will become limited.
For U.S. embassies, getting as many Americans out on commercial flights as possible out of a dangerous situation “is textbook standard for evacuation,” said Penn Professor Joseph DeThomas. State’s School of International Affairs and former Ambassador to Estonia. who spent more than 30 years at the State Department.
It’s better and cheaper for evacuees, and it gives them more control over where they go and with whom, he said.
“It also means people leave before things get really hairy and inevitably more chaotic,” said DeThomas, who added that if the situation were to escalate into a military evacuation like in Afghanistan, it “could be a lot smaller. and limited to absolutely essential personnel”. who are paid to take risks.”
A State Department spokesperson told PolitiFact he is urging people to leave Ukraine now “out of an abundance of caution” because security conditions “are unpredictable and may deteriorate without notice” and the U.S. government will not be able to evacuate them later. .
“Scheduled commercial transport is always the best option when local communication and transport infrastructure is intact and functioning normally,” the spokesperson said, adding that if commercial flights become unavailable, leave by car, bus or train. train to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova and Romania could be an option.
Citizens should first learn about airline and country COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements. Information is available on embassy websites.
How are the situations in Ukraine and Afghanistan different?
A key difference between Ukraine today and Afghanistan in August is the conditions on the ground. Simply put, in Afghanistan it was far too late for the kind of early warning that the United States now issues. Security conditions had already deteriorated when the Taliban entered Kabul, so even waiting for a government evacuation flight was risky, said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of foreign policy research at the Brookings Institution. .
“We were lucky because the Taliban chose not to oppose them,” he said.
In Ukraine, life has been proceeding more or less normally so far, despite tensions over Russia’s intentions, according to news reports.
People seeking to leave Ukraine now would not face the obstacles that people seeking to flee Afghanistan faced in August. There are no Taliban checkpoints to cross and no threats of terrorist attacks or violence directed at Americans. There were more than 80 commercial flights from Ukraine available on January 28, according to flightstats.com, and people can depart by car or train to surrounding countries.
In Afghanistan, getting out of the country has been complicated by the large number of people, not just US citizens, trying to leave amid the rapid Taliban takeover.
It is not known how many US citizens are currently in Ukraine.
“U.S. citizens are not required to register travel to a foreign country with us, and we do not maintain comprehensive lists of U.S. citizens residing abroad,” a senior State Department official said. declining to give a total during a Jan. 28 press briefing. 23.
However, senior State Department official Victoria Nuland told CNN’s Jake Tapper in December that there were about 10,000 to 15,000 Americans there, a number that fluctuates during the holidays.
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.