Additional staff from Israel’s Foreign Ministry arrived Tuesday in Ukraine to prepare for the opening of a second, consular office in the city of Levov, the Foreign Ministry said.
The plan for a backup consular office was announced by Israel last week along with information that Israel is adding staff to handle the crush of Israelis who are suddenly realizing it is time to heed Foreign Ministry warnings and leave the country ahead of a possible Russian invasion.
As of Tuesday night, some 3,000 Israelis had arrived in Israel from Ukraine since Friday; a total of 7,000 were registered thus far on the ministry’s website for updates and information on how to leave.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Havat told JewishPress.com on Tuesday night that contrary to media reports, the Israeli Embassy in Kiev was not “relocated” and had not been shut down.
“The diplomatic team is still there and the Embassy is open,” Havat said, adding that he could not say whether the embassy would remain open, however, if Russia invades and the firing begins. “We will take the decision based on what happens,” he said.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid again urged Israelis to get out while they still can. “I call on Israelis who remain in Ukraine to leave,” he said. “The window of opportunity is on its way to closing.”
Levov, located near the border with Poland in western Ukraine, is some distance from Kiev in the country’s eastern region, close to the borders of Russia and its ally, Belarus.
More than 150,000 Russian troops remained in position Tuesday night, according to US President Joe Biden.
The move comes as nearly all other countries whittle down their embassy staffs to a skeleton crew, while evacuating all family members of diplomatic personnel.
The US, Canada and a number of other nations have already relocated their embassy operations to Levov.
After a request from Israel’s Embassy in the country, most universities in Ukraine agreed to allow their Israeli students to continue their studies remotely, this enabling them to leave the country ahead of a possible Russian invasion, according to the Hebrew-language Actualic news outlet.
Russian Invasion Could Come in Next Few Hours
Russian forces have moved rocket launchers and long-range artillery into possible firing positions, a US official told CBS News on Tuesday afternoon.
US intelligence sources also were quoted Tuesday by British news outlet The Sun as saying Russia is set to invade Ukraine in the early hours of Wednesday. The initial attack could come as early as 3 am local time, beginning with air strikes “before tanks roll over the border,” sources said.
Earlier in the day, Russia had announced the withdrawal of some of its forces from the border with Ukraine, possibly signaling a de-escalation of tensions that have prompted NATO to beef up its 80,000-strong force in eastern Europe and its member states to rush weapons and ammunition to Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin met Tuesday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Moscow, where they discussed Russia’s main demand to keep Ukraine from ever joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and to scale back NATO troops in Eastern Europe. During that meeting, Putin claimed his forces had begun to withdraw after the “conclusion of the Alliance Resolve 2022” military exercise with Belarus.
But Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his government will believe a de-escalation is taking place once such a move was visible along Ukraine’s borders.
“On Russian statements regarding withdrawal of some forces from the Ukrainian border. We in Ukraine have a rule: we don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we see. If a real withdrawal follows these statements, we will believe in the beginning of a real de-escalation,” Kuleba said in a statement tweeted in English.
No Russian De-escalation Seen Along Ukraine’s Borders
More ominously, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg noted Tuesday night, “So far we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground in and around Ukraine.”
#NATO #DefMin will address the most serious security crisis in Europe for decades. There are signs from #Russia that diplomacy should continue. This gives grounds for cautious optimism, but so far we have not seen any sign of de-escalation on the ground in & around #Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/V8ZJBYe23U
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) February 15, 2022
President Biden confirmed in a televised address from the White House on Tuesday that “more than 150,000” Russian troops remain positioned on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders.
In addition, reported The Sun, there are another 40,000 “pro-Putin” forces in Belarus to the north and 30,000 pro-Russian separatists ready for battle in the Donbass region.
Satellite images reported by CBS News on Tuesday showed the deployment of a new helicopter squadron and soldiers to Belgorod, Russia, just 24 miles from the border with Ukraine. In addition, US officials told the news outlet the Russian military has moved rocket launchers and long-range missiles into firing positions.
Analysts at the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) based in Moscow told The Insider that, in contrast to Russia’s claim of withdrawing troops, columns of military equipment were seen moving towards the border with Ukraine.
Russian state media specifically referred to withdrawal of troops from the Belarus training group — but said nothing about Russian troops stationed in Kursk, Belgorod and Bryansk regions, CIT noted.
“We saw this statement but so far we don’t see any changes,” the analysts said. “Those remaining columns that were on the way, as they moved towards the border (and not from it), are moving. Moreover, there are new reports about the departure of new units to the border, which we additionally confirm with video recordings with trains and data from the Russian Railways database,” the organization said.
On Tuesday Ukraine deployed anti-aircraft batteries in Kiev, along with columns of National Guard vehicles, according to The Sun.
Also during the day Tuesday, the Russian State Duma (parliament) voted to send an official request to President Vladimir Putin to formally recognize the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) in eastern Ukraine – both located in the Donbass region and recognized internationally as constituent regions of Ukraine as Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
The move constitutes a further Russian provocation against Ukraine, which has fought ongoing attempts by Moscow to seize its territory since 2014, when Russia Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in February and March 2014.
Ukraine Government Sites Under Cyberattack
In the meantime, a massive cyberattack on Tuesday struck multiple Ukrainian government sites, including those of the country’s defense ministry and armed forces.
⚠️ Confirmed: Real-time network data show a loss of connectivity to #Ukraine's State Savings Bank, impacting ATM and banking services; disruptions also reported on Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces networks; incident comes amid heightened tensions with Russia ? pic.twitter.com/QMbPPpCzaV
— NetBlocks (@netblocks) February 15, 2022
A message on the home page of the Ukraine defense ministry website said it was “under maintenance.” The ministry tweeted that its website was apparently under a cyber attack and that staff were working to restore access, Reuters reported.
In addition, two of the country’s largest financial institutions, the Oschadbank state savings bank and Privat24, were hit by “a massive denial of service (DDOS) attack,” according to the AFP news agency.
Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, told the news agency, “It cannot be excluded that the aggressor is resorting to dirty tricks.”
However, the agency stopped short of specifically blaming Russia for the attack.