U.S. Says Its Diplomats Are Out Of Ukraine After U.S. Special Ops Planes Tracked Near Polish Border (Updated)
As a major conflict between Ukraine and Russia looms, the State Department has relocated diplomats into Poland, at least for the time being.
A pair of U.S. Air Force MC-130J Commando II special operations tanker-transport aircraft, along with a pair of the CV-22B Osprey special operations tilt-rotors, were tracked flying near Poland's border with Ukraine this evening. It's unclear, but there are indications that the CV-22Bs may have flown into Ukraine before the entire force left the area. These flights were being openly broadcast via the aircraft's ADS-B transponders and fully trackable online using common flight tracking software.
This all came amid a now-confirmed report from Bloomberg News that personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, have been withdrawn from Ukraine, at least for the time being, and are now in neighboring Poland, in light of new security concerns. The Embassy's operations had already been relocated from the capital Kyiv to Lviv, situated some 40 miles from the Polish-Ukriaina border, over fears of an imminent Russian invasion. Russia deployed troops into areas of eastern Ukraine today following its recognition of two breakaway republics there as independent nations, the latest in a string of worrisome developments that you can read more about in The War Zone's latest report on this crisis.
The MC-130Js, with the callsigns Raggy 81 and Raggy 82, and the CV-22Bs, using the callsigns Pyro 41 and Pyro 42, all approached the Polish-Ukrainian border together, according to online plane spotters, including friend of The War Zone
@AircraftSpots. The Commando IIs then began orbiting on the Polish side of the border while the Ospreys disappeared from online flight tracking software. The CV-22Bs eventually re-emerged heading west and the aircraft left the area.
There are reports that these aircraft all launched from Powidz Air Base in central Poland and that they subsequently returned there. It's unclear what units any these aircraft belong to, but the Air Force's 352nd Special Operations Wing, based at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom, has squadrons that fly both types. U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. David Tabor, the commander of Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR), visited Powidz yesterday, according to pictures released by the 352nd's Public Affairs Office, indicating the elements of that wing are currently forward-deployed there.
Though we can't say for certain, there's a high possibility that the CV-22Bs crossed into Ukraine to support the temporary movement of Embassy operations from Lviv into Poland. If they did, the MC-130Js would have been ideally positioned to refuel them on the way out and provide general mission support. Having multiple Commando IIs on station would have offered a backup in case one aircraft developed a fault of some kind. It's also possible they could have been doing something else in the area or were being held in reserve for contingency operations.
Neither Bloomberg's initial report nor the subsequent official confirmation from the U.S. State Department has identified where the American Embassy in Ukraine is now operating from in Poland. The War Zone has reached out to U.S. European Command for more information.
"For security reasons, Department of State personnel currently in Lviv will spend the night in Poland. Our personnel will regularly return to continue their diplomatic work in Ukraine and provide emergency consular services," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. "They will continue to support the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian government, coordinating on diplomatic efforts. The United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russia’s aggression is unwavering. The fact that we are taking prudent precautions for the sake of the safety of U.S. government personnel and U.S. citizens, as we do regularly worldwide, in no way undermines our support for, or our commitment to, Ukraine."
"President Putin's actions today constitute a major escalation and are another indication that Russia is seeking war, not diplomacy," a State Department spokesperson told The War Zone directly in response to queries about the relocation of the Embassy. "We will continue to consult with our Allies and partners in the coming hours on the way forward. As we have said, we are committed to finding a diplomatic resolution that avoids a brutal and costly conflict, but diplomacy cannot succeed unless Russia changes course."
As already noted, President Joe Biden's administration had already scaled back operations at the Embassy in Kyiv before relocating its remaining activities to the city of Lviv, some 40 miles east of the Polish-Ukrainian border, last week.
U.S. officials have warned that a potential new Russian invasion of Ukraine, which might come within days, could include missile and artillery attacks on Kyiv and other large cities. Separately, American authorities have reportedly had discussions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about his plans to evacuate from Kyiv, if necessary. However, there are no indications that Zelensky has any plans to leave now, a decision that would have serious political ramifications.
A combination of MC-130Js and CV-22Bs is certainly what one might expect to see supporting an evacuation of U.S. diplomatic staff or other American nationals from Lviv or elsewhere in Ukraine. Air Force Special Operations Command's (AFSOC) Ospreys, as well as MV-22Bs from the Marine Corps, not only train regularly to support non-combatant evacuation missions, but have been employed operationally in this roles on multiple occasions in the past.
These tilt-rotors are capable of high-speed flight over extended distances, and can do so while operating at very low levels to help enter and exit sensitive areas discreetly and avoid potential threats or other hazards in the process. MC-130Js, which are specially configured for low-level flight, as well, are among the aircraft AFSOC has available to refuel CV-22Bs and helicopters in flight to further extend their range. Both aircraft are also equipped with the most capable self-defense, situational awareness, and secure communications of any aircraft with the airlift mission set.
As previously noted, it is also possible that these aircraft flew to the Polish-Ukrainian border to carry out some other kind of evacuation operation or to conduct a dry run for such an operation. These possibilities do seem somewhat less likely given the force composition, location of the flights, and the news of the temporary relocation of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to Poland.
For comparison, a single A U.S. Army HH-60M "Dustoff" air ambulance helicopter did conduct a more mundane medical evaluation flight in the same general area last week, as you can read about more here, but never crossed over into Ukraine. Instead, that helicopter landed at a Polish border checkpoint. There it picked up a U.S. service member assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine who was experiencing an unspecified medical emergency.
No matter what, the appearance of these aircraft near the Polish-Ukrainian border, along with the fact that all remaining U.S. diplomatic personnel in Ukraine have at least temporarily left that country, is a significant new development in this still very-much evolving crisis.
We will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.
U.S. European Command (EUCOM) has now told CNN that all U.S. special operations forces have left Ukraine. That outlet has separately reported that those personnel may have been involved in the temporary relocation of U.S. diplomatic staff from Lviv to a site in Poland last night.
The U.S. State Department also now says that personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine will continue to work in Lviv during the day, but will continue to overnight in Poland as a security precaution. How these individuals are expected to make these regular trips between Ukraine and Poland is unclear.
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