We have, of course, yet to see what, if anything, is the significance of the news that Russia may be pulling back some troops from the Ukrainian border. As Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas observed:
The military build-up has taken place for months, de-escalation cannot now happen in a matter of hours.
However, if reports are accurate, it is worth noting another signal, but one sent by Washington, not Moscow.
From the Wall Street Journal (February 14):
The U.S. is closing its embassy in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and relocating operations 340 miles west to Lviv near the Polish border, as allies warn that an attack by Russian forces on Ukraine may be imminent.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the relocation as a temporary move to protect embassy staff.
“These prudent precautions in no way undermine our support for or our commitment to Ukraine,” Mr. Blinken said Monday. “Our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering.”
As part of the move, the State Department ordered the destruction of networking equipment and computer workstations and the dismantling of the embassy telephone system, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter and internal communications reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Those moves render the Kyiv embassy inoperable as a diplomatic facility.
On Sunday, 56 embassy workers and the embassy’s classified materials arrived at Dulles International Airport near Washington, the internal communications said.
Geopolitical power rests on a blend of economic and military strength and how it is used, but it can also be reinforced or subverted by, if you like, the theater of power. The latter is a game that Putin is currently playing very well, America, not so much.
Reasonable people can disagree over whether the U.S. should have pulled out of Afghanistan (I happen to think that it was a mistake), but the manner in which the withdrawal was handled (to the extent it was handled) was undeniably a disaster, and a disaster on such a scale that it has diminished both the perception of America’s power and of its reliability as an ally or, in cases that fall short of a formal alliance, a source of support.
That’s bound to color the way in which the U.S. response to the Ukrainian crisis is understood. Under the circumstances, closing the embassy in Kyiv was a mistake. Reducing its staffing to a bare minimum would have been the right thing to do. Shutting up shop altogether (even if many of the staff have merely decamped to Lviv) looked, however, too close to an act of pre-emptive surrender for comfort. That impression will have only been reinforced by the removal of classified material and the destruction or dismantling of equipment within the building. Given the decision to close the embassy, this may well have been the prudent thing to do, but, with memories of Saigon already revived by the debacle in Kabul, it’s a shame that news of it got out.