The 160 soldiers of the Florida National Guard deployed to Ukraine since November have been ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to leave Ukraine amid increasing concern of a Russian attack, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby.
The soldiers, assigned to the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, have been ordered to reposition elsewhere in Europe, according to Kirby in a media release. They have been advising and mentoring Ukrainian forces as part of Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine.
Austin made this decision “out of an abundance of caution — with the safety and security of our personnel foremost in mind — and informed by the State Department’s guidance on U.S. personnel in Ukraine,” according to the media release.
“This repositioning does not signify a change in our determination to support Ukraine’s Armed Forces, but will provide flexibility in assuring allies and deterring aggression,” the release states.
Task Force Gator soldiers, joined by NATO allies and partners, “mentor and advise Armed Forces of Ukraine Observer Controller / Trainers at the Combat Training Center located near Yavoriv, according to the JMTG-U website. They do this, according to the website, by employing a “train-the-trainer” approach, enabling Ukrainians to take the lead in training rotational brigades.
They also work to “develop and implement systems to improve combat training and increase training center capacity,” according to the website. “Combat Training Center - Yavoriv delivers Brigade-and-below collective training for Armed Forces of Ukraine Brigades.”
Earlier Saturday, State Department officials in Kyiv announced they were suspending consular services at the embassy in Kyiv and moving some personnel to Lviv in the west of the country.
“It appears increasingly likely that this is where this this situation is headed, towards some kind of active conflict,” a senior State Department official told reporters Saturday morning.
Friday, President Joe Biden ordered 3,000 members of the 82nd Airborne Division to join 3,000 troops already mobilized to Poland, Germany and Romania.
There are more than 130,000 Russian troops arrayed around Ukraine.
Also on Saturday, Austin spoke with Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu, according to Kirby.
“They discussed Russia’s force build-up in Crimea and around Ukraine,” he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden are to hold a high-stakes telephone call on Saturday as tensions over a possibly imminent invasion of Ukraine escalated sharply, according to The Associated Press. Before talking to Biden, Putin is to have a call with French President Emmanuel Macron, who met with him in Moscow earlier in the week to try to resolve the crisis.
This is a developing story. Stay with Military Times for updates.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.