In Ukraine and Ethiopia, Biden officials have made clear that the 2021 Kabul airlift was a “unique” operation that won’t be repeated.
WASHINGTON — As U.S. officials grew convinced this month that Russia might invade Ukraine, they implored American citizens to leave the country immediately — and added a grim addendum.
No rescuers would be coming for those who stayed behind, they said.
It was a point President Biden drove home last week by insisting he would not use the military to extract anyone 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 might trigger World War III.
The fallout from last summer’s chaotic evacuation of Americans from Afghanistan appears to have shaped Mr. Biden’s approach to the Ukraine crisis in multiple ways, from more explicit coordination with European allies, who in some cases felt sidelined from Afghanistan planning, to greater transparency about the most dire intelligence assessments.
But in Ukraine and beyond, U.S. officials have also focused on a more specific worry: that Americans living in foreign danger zones would wrongly assume that an Air Force C-17 cargo plane — like those that transported thousands out of Afghanistan during the final days of the U.S. withdrawal — would be their escape option of last resort.
In warnings to Americans abroad over the past few months, first in a teetering Ethiopia and now in Ukraine, Biden officials have made clear that the Afghanistan rescue operation was a one-off.
“The United States does not typically do mass evacuations,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, told reporters last week. Lest anyone recall last summer’s events in Kabul, she pointed out that “the situation in Afghanistan was unique for many reasons.”
Ms. Psaki was referring to the 16-day military evacuation of American diplomats, contractors, aid workers and others from the Kabul airport just before and after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. More than 100,000 Afghans who assisted the United States during its 20-year war in the country, along with their family members, were also flown out.
The Biden administration proclaimed that operation a success, even as it endured withering criticism for failing to anticipate the swift collapse of Afghanistan’s government and not beginning evacuations earlier. Some U.S. officials noted with frustration that their repeated public calls for Americans to leave the country in the months before the Taliban’s takeover had been largely ignored.
Since then, the president has appeared determined to avoid anything resembling a repeat of that operation, which was tragically punctuated by a suicide bomb explosion on Aug. 26 that killed as many as 170 civilians and 13 U.S. Marines manning a gate outside the Kabul airport.
“An invasion remains distinctly possible,” Mr. Biden said Tuesday in a national address. “That’s why I’ve asked several times that all Americans in Ukraine leave now before it’s too late to leave safely.” The president added that it was why he also ordered the temporary relocation of the U.S. embassy from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, to Lviv in western Ukraine, near its border with Poland.
Biden officials delivered a similar, if less widely noticed, message a few months ago, as rebel forces advanced on the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. With analysts warning of bloody urban combat and a potential government collapse, the State Department began issuing near-daily statements urging Americans to depart.
As is the case now in Ukraine, State Department officials specifically warned that the Kabul airlift should not be seen as a precedent.
“I think there may be a misperception that what we saw in Afghanistan is something that the U.S. government can undertake anywhere and everywhere in the world,” Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said at a news briefing on Nov. 15. He added that no one “should expect that we may be in a position to undertake something similar to what we saw 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 American citizens resided in Ukraine, many of them dual nationals, along with an unknown number of tourists and travelers.
Ronald E. Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to three nations, including Afghanistan, said it could be difficult to convince Americans that they were on their own.
“They don’t get out, and then they think the military’s going to come and get them,” said Mr. Neumann, who is now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
But it is one thing to talk in the abstract about leaving Americans behind, and another to do it, he acknowledged. “Some congressman’s going to be screaming that you’ve got to find Mary Jo,” he said. “And you’ve got to do it, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Without casting judgment on the decision to relocate the Kyiv embassy, Mr. Neumann noted that U.S. diplomats had incurred great risk in the past to help Americans escape danger. During World War II, he said, embassy officials in France and Poland assisted Americans even after German offensives had begun. “Diplomats were going out in the middle of air raids to find Americans and bring them into embassies,” he said.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow also kept a skeleton crew there after the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941. (The diplomats stored water by freezing it in garbage cans and, when they weren’t preparing for the siege, attended the ballet “Swan Lake” approximately 50 times, according to an official State Department history.)
A year of war. On Nov. 4, 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed began a military campaign in the country’s northern Tigray region, hoping to vanquish the Tigray People’s Liberation Front — his most troublesome political foe.
Rebels turned the tide. Despite Mr. Abiy’s promise of a swift campaign, the Ethiopian military suffered a major defeat in June when it was forced to withdraw from Tigray. The fighting subsequently moved south.
Tigrayan forces close in. In late October, Tigrayan rebels captured two towns near Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital. The government declared a state of emergency and called on citizens to arm themselves.
Drones tip the balance. A string of victories at the end of 2021 signaled that the Ethiopian government was regaining its footing on the battlefield. A fleet of combat drones acquired from allies in the Persian Gulf region was a decisive factor in the reversal.
Atrocities on both sides. A United Nations report in November offered evidence that all sides involved in the conflict had committed atrocities. Since the start of the war, the Ethiopian and Tigrayan forces have since been accused of carrying out transgressions including extrajudicial killings.
U.S. officials said that even American diplomats at the embassy in Kyiv, who were protected by a Marine contingent, were in too much danger to remain there. And former ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, a veteran of war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq, said he did not fault the decision.
“I think it was the right call. The last thing the administration wanted was embassy casualties or hostages, and they came close in Afghanistan,” he said. A U.S. Army investigative report obtained by The Washington Post included complaints that the State Department was dangerously reluctant to evacuate its embassy in Kabul.
Mr. Crocker noted that he believed Moscow was implicated in the unsolved 1979 kidnapping and death of the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph “Spike” Dubs, just before the Soviet invasion.
Even so, some American diplomats said that relocating U.S. embassy operations before the start of potential hostilities was an overreaction rooted in memory of the Kabul airlift and perhaps the 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
Russian state media has ridiculed the United States for running from what it called a phantom threat, according to a translation of Russian broadcasts distributed within the State Department this week.
“While the American [diplomats] are fleeing Kyiv, U.S. TV crews are still there, scouring the city in search of sensations. However, they have to report from the streets where nothing is happening,” Moscow’s Rossiya 1 network reported.
Many current and former U.S. officials believe that American diplomats have grown too risk-averse in general, especially since the disaster in Benghazi, which became a long-running political flashpoint, with Republicans alleging unproven cover-ups and conspiracies by the Obama administration.
“A world of zero risk is not a world in which American diplomacy can deliver,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in an October speech at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Va., where the U.S. diplomatic corps is trained. “We have to accept risk and manage it smartly.”
But in the case of Ukraine, Mr. Blinken is erring on the side of safety.
In an interview with a Ukrainian television station on Tuesday, he said the decision had been made “out of an abundance of precaution.”
“It’s the prudent thing to do,” Mr. Blinken added, “because, again, my personal responsibility is to the safety and security of our people.”