Some British staff and dependants are being withdrawn from the embassy in Ukraine in response to a growing military threat from Russia, the Foreign Office has said.
Officials said there were no specific threats to British diplomats, with about half of the staff in Kyiv reportedly scheduled to come home to the UK.
The move follows US officials ordering relatives of embassy staff to leave Ukraine as a Russian invasion could come “at any time”. Russia has repeatedly denied having any plans for military action in Ukraine.
The Foreign Office said: “Some embassy staff and dependants are being withdrawn from Kyiv in response to the growing threat from Russia. The British embassy remains open and will continue to carry out essential work.”
Britain came under criticism over its failure to withdraw some staff from Afghanistan before the Taliban seizure of Kabul in August. It is likely that British diplomats in Ukraine would be exposed since the UK has taken one of the most prominent roles in sending military equipment including anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
But officials in Kyiv believe the move is too circumspect. A spokesman for the Ukrainian foreign ministry said: “We have taken note of the state department’s decision re departure of family members of US embassy staff. While we respect the right of foreign nations to ensure the safety and security of their diplomatic missions, we believe such a step to be a premature one and an instance of excessive caution.”
The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said he did not know of plans for EU states to withdraw staff from their embassies, adding there was no need to dramatise the situation. “We are not going to do the same thing because we don’t know any specific reasons. But [the US] secretary [of state, Antony] Blinken will inform us,” Borrell told reporters as he arrived for a meeting with his EU counterparts.
Blinken is expected to join the meeting by video link in the afternoon to continue his consultations with his European partners, and report back on the meeting he had with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in Geneva on Friday.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied planning to invade, but former UK national security adviser Mark Lyall Grant, speaking on BBC radio, said he feared an invasion was imminent because of the build-up of Russian troops in Belarus making an attack on Kyiv more likely.
Explaining his belief that diplomatic staff could remain in place in Ukraine, Borrell said: “Negotiations are going on,” adding he thought staff should not leave “unless secretary Blinken gives us an information that justifies a move”.
The EU’s foreign ministers are expected to issue a warning to Russia over its troop buildup at Ukraine’s border. They will also discuss the formal written proposals to be sent by Nato to Russia on its proposed agenda for talks.
The Foreign Office took the unusual step on Saturday night of naming former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev as a potential Kremlin candidate to take over in Kyiv – a claim dismissed as provocative “nonsense” by Moscow.
Dominic Raab, the UK deputy prime minister, said on Sunday there was a very significant risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. The UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, is due to travel to Moscow to hold talks with his Russian counterpart.
Number 10 also issued a warning at the weekend that without a successful combination of deterrence and diplomacy thousands of lives could be lost in a war that would not be confined to conventional arms, but also cyber-attacks.
The US embassy in Ukraine is one of the larger American missions in Europe. It has about 900 employees total, the vast majority of them Ukrainians, some of whom have been with the mission since it opened three decades ago.