Australians in Ukraine are being urged to leave immediately as the threat of a Russian military invasion increases and the USA considers sending its own troops.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) on Monday night raised its advice to ‘Do Not Travel’ as family members of Australian diplomats prepare to depart Kyiv.
It follows similar moves by the United States and the United Kingdom in one of the clearest signs yet that American officials are bracing for an aggressive Russian move in the region.
US President Joe Biden is reportedly weighing the options for boosting America’s military assets in Eastern Europe to counter a build-up of Russian troops.
But Russia has accused the West of “hysteria” and spreading information “laced with lies” which was escalating East-West tensions.
Tensions in Ukraine have been increasing for months after the Kremlin massed about 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, a build-up the
West says is preparation for a war to prevent Ukraine joining NATO.
The Kremlin has repeatedly denied planning to invade.
“Australians in Ukraine should leave now by commercial means, where safe to do so, noting that flight availability could change or be suspended at short notice,” DFAT said in a statement.
“Australians who decide to remain in Ukraine should review their personal security plans, be prepared to shelter in place if required, maintain heightened security awareness and register with DFAT.”
However Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the probability of military conflict in eastern Ukraine being initiated by the Ukrainian side was higher than ever.
Mr Peskov said Ukraine has deployed a large number of troops near the borders of breakaway regions controlled by pro-Russian separatists, which he said indicated Kyiv was preparing to attack them.
Ukraine has repeatedly denied this.
NATO said earlier it was putting forces on standby and reinforcing eastern Europe with more ships and fighter jets in response to Russia’s military build-up at Ukraine’s borders.
The move added to a flurry of signals that the West is bracing for an aggressive Russian move against Ukraine, though Moscow denies any plan to invade.
“Military action by Russia could come at any time,” the US Embassy said in a statement on Sunday.
Officials “will not be in a position to evacuate American citizens in such a contingency, so US citizens currently present in Ukraine should plan accordingly”.
Ukrainian foreign ministry said it considered the move as “premature and a manifestation of excessive caution”.
“In fact, there have been no cardinal changes in the security situation recently: the threat of new waves of Russian aggression has remained constant since 2014 and the buildup of Russian troops near the state border began in April last year,” it said.
The New York Times said Mr Biden was mulling plans to send 1000 to 5000 troops to Eastern European countries, with the possibility of increasing the number should tensions flare further.
A senior administration official declined to confirm the numbers on Sunday but said “we are developing plans and we are consulting with allies to determine options moving forward”.
The UK Foreign Office confirmed its embassy staff and their dependants were being pulled out.
The UK believes there is a significant risk that Russian president Vladimir Putin will launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has accused the president of plotting to install a pro-Moscow leader as head of the Ukrainian government.