Republicans are demanding answers from President Biden on what he will do to help an estimated 23,000 Americans still stuck in war-torn Ukraine.
Biden warned that if war broke out, the State Department would not rescue any US citizen or green-card holder who is still in the country. Americans are being told to make their own way to the borders of neighboring countries Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Moldova and Hungary but many can’t.
There are tens of thousands of people trying to flee Ukraine on buses, trains and in cars. At every gas station, there are snaking lines for gasoline and banks are limiting how much cash people can withdraw.
Some off-the-books former military personnel are helping people escape on buses, but there remain an unknown number of people on the ground in need of help.
Republican Senators Bill Hagerty and Marsha Blackburn on Thursday sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense and State Secretary Blinken demanding answers.
They cited the shambolic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which 13 US troops died, and asked what the government had planned to avoid similar disasters in Ukraine.
Republican Senators Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty on Thursday asked the Secretaries of Defense and State to tell them what the strategy was – if there is one – for getting Americans out of Ukraine
President Biden addressed the nation on Thursday afternoon. He promised to impose strict sanctions on Russia but said nothing of any kind of evacuation plans. Earlier this month, he said Americans in Ukraine had to get themselves out of the country
‘We write to express our grave concern regarding the safety and evacuation of Americans in Ukraine.
‘Given the disorderly and chaotic evacuation of US citizens, legal permanent residents and Afghan allies amid the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal in 2021 – an evacuation mission that remains incomplete – Congress is willing and ready to conduct proper oversight responsibilities on behalf of the American people,’ the letter reads.
The Senators said the State Department estimates that as many as 23,000 Americans remain in Ukraine.
‘What is the US government’s plan to protect US citizens and facilitate the evacuation of American citizens?’ they asked.
Biden did not offer any form of promise or offer of help to Americans stranded in Ukraine when he spoke on Thursday.
He said the US will impose strict sanctions on Russia, hitting its oligarchs living abroad and its banks, in an effort to hit Putin where it hurts.
Biden admitted during the briefing that he did not think the sanctions – which he and other Western countries have been threatening for months – would have any effect on the Russian leader.
The State Department is telling citizens to fend for themselves. ‘The US government will not be able to evacuate US citizens from Ukraine,’ an announcement on the website reads today
Earlier, spoke with a group of 23 American citizens as they were being transported from Kyiv to Romania in two vehicles – a minibus and a car – arranged by Bryan Stern, a 23-year Army and Navy veteran who saved 2,000 people from Kabul last year with his volunteer group Project Dynamo.
Stern collected the American evacuees shortly after 5am from Kyiv, while ‘missiles fell from the sky’ around them.
They are now driving the 300 miles to Romania, taking quieter, smaller roads in the hopes of evading Russian troops, fighter jets and the thousands of other evacuees in cars.
The State Department has not been able to provide an exact number for how many American citizens remain in Ukraine but estimates range from between 10,000 to 30,000. They are now telling anyone still in Ukraine to travel by land to Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia or Moldova.
‘There are thousands of Americans and NATO ally-citizens that are left in Ukraine right now and it’s about to be Soviet-occupied Russia,’ Stern, a former Navy Lt. Commander told on Thursday over speakerphone while driving one of the two vehicles in his rescue operation.
‘We’re in the middle of what is probably the first rescue of Americans in the opening hours of World War III.
‘We have 23 people in two vehicles. Everyone’s got a different story. What we have learned is that in these situations, people don’t leave when they should for all kinds of reasons. We don’t really judge and often we don’t ask.
‘We have one American woman whose father passed away yesterday. She flew to Kyiv for his funeral and woke up to missile fire and now we’re evacuating her. She lives in New Mexico.
‘In this circumstance, some people didn’t believe it. Some wanted to wait it out. Some hedged their bets and thought “Putin isn’t that crazy.” What we’ve all been doing for the last two weeks is saying, “well, there is no way he would do this. Only a mad man would. So why am I going to leave and have my house get looted and robbed.” Unfortunately, all those hopes and dreams were all wrong.
‘The missiles landed at 5am. The sun came up, and we were rolling an hour after that with a bus full of evacuees,’ Stern told over the phone this morning while driving with a car full of evacuees.
Across the country, there is a sense of disbelief that Putin followed through on his threat of war.
‘We stopped for a coffee and the waitress said, “I just cannot believe it” and that is the general feeling,’ Stern said.
American evacuees being rescued from Ukraine today on buses arranged by Project Dynamo, a volunteer group set up by ex Army Lieutenant Bryan Stern. Among the group were three kids who smiled from the backseat of the bus as Russian fighter jets flew overhead
Among people in the group of evacuees are American-Ukrainian business men and women and their families. None of them thought Putin would ever actually invade, and were stunned to wake up to airstrikes this morning
An explosion lights up the night sky over Kyiv in the early hours of Thursday, as Russia launched an all-out attack on Ukraine from north, south and east with bombs, cruise missiles and rockets raining from the skies
The other vehicle is being driven by his translator, who also runs a bus company. Stern agreed to lead that man and his family to safety in exchange for use of the vehicle.
‘None of them thought this would happen. There is just total disbelief. Deep down, we thought “he’s not Saddam Hussein. He is not that bad. But just like that, he achieved war criminal status,’ Stern said of Putin.
The State Department said earlier this month there are between 10,000 and 20,000 in the country. Biden warned on February 10 that the government would not save anyone left behind, like it did from the Taliban in Kabul last summer.
Stern said on Thursday that the differences between the two operations are vast.
It’s a good idea to not have military intervention right now. That’s a great way to make this war worse. Ukraine is not Afghanistan. The Red Army is not the Taliban
On one hand, he said it was easier to prepare for the Ukrainian crisis because it was well-anticipated. On the other, the Russian Army is far superior and more sophisticated than Taliban fighters who had no real air presence and limited arsenal.
‘The downside is that we didn’t have to face the Russian war machine in Kabul. The Taliban did not have air missiles, they do not have air dominance. They have other issues, but they do not have the fierce military machine of the Red Army,’ he said.
Stern and his group had already been driving for eight hours when spoke with them and they had another 10 hours on the road. Four Americans who they were scheduled to rescue could not meet them at their rally point this morning because they had no gas in their car.
Some of those who did make it – a group of eight people – flagged them down in the street while watching them load the vehicle.
Stern said he has not asked the group if they feel abandoned by Biden, but he sided with the US military decision not to ‘rush in to World War III.’
‘I actually agree right now from the US government perspective that at least for now, in these early days, that the military is not here.
‘I wish the military was but I do agree that they are not – for now. This war, this is WWII. It’s OK to not rush into it right now as long as groups like mine can operate.
‘People can self-evacuate. This is a marathon not a spring. This is not “we left people behind in a warzone”.
‘That’s what Afghanistan was. In this context, I think it’s a good idea to not have military intervention right now. That’s a great way to make this war worse. Ukraine is not Afghanistan. The Red Army is not the Taliban. Closing the embassy as early as they did, that is probably not a decision I would have made I think that was a little bit hasty.
‘I would have held out a little bit longer but it also sent a message to Americans on the ground that the government is leaving. The President got on TV and said “leave now, we will not come and get you.”
‘As much as that pains me to hear, I appreciate the honesty of those statements. I haven’t asked them [if they’ve felt abandoned]… but I can tell you at least two people have cried in my arms.
‘Our plan is get across the border, then do a compass check from there. The situation is very dynamic. What’s true right now may not be in 10 minutes. Ten hours from now when we cross the border, I suspect that Ukraine is a very different country than it is now in a lot of areas that matter,’ he said.
The attack has come to Ukraine on all fronts, with bombs and missiles striking targets across the country, ground forces rolling in from Belarus, Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk, and paratroopers dropping on Kharkiv
President Biden this morning with the National Security Council. He is due to address the nation at noon today
Kyiv: Many Ukrainians flocked to underground subway stations as missiles rained down on major cities on Thursday morning
A Ukrainian police officer carrying an assault rifle walks on a platform backdropped with people waiting for trains from Kostiantynivka to Kyiv on Thursday
The group is split in what they want to do next.
Stern said some plan to stay in Romania, in hotels, apartments or elsewhere, until the situation ‘calms down’.
Some are desperate to get back to America and must now find a way to get to a country where airspace is not limited, and they can take a commercial flight home.
Project Dynamo founder Bryan Stern is a 26-year American military veteran who has saved more than 2,000 people from Kabul since August and who is now driving evacuees out of Ukraine
He said he had not asked them why they did not flee sooner, and that he doesn’t judge them for it.
‘At least two people have cried in my arms.
‘We have a little girl, she’s 11, who is very scared. Of course they’d be scared.
‘There were missiles falling around them.’
He and his group have strategically taken lesser-known routes to try and avoid trouble.
They breezed through Ukrainian-police checkpoints while on the phone with , but Stern said he worried for what awaited them at the border.
‘We have three young kids on the bus. I am hoping they are snoozing. We’re stopping every so often.
‘There’s a lot of traffic so we’re taking the smaller roads which are also less of a target. This is a marathon not a sprint.
‘I told the bus driver not to drive so fast that he blows a tire. You’re not going to outrun a helicopter or tank.
‘We’re moving expeditiously. There were maybe 2,000 Americans in Kabul but it’s ten times as many in Ukraine, maybe 50,000. This is a very, very large country and everyone is trying to get out at the same time.
‘I anticipate the mess and chaos of Kabul times 100.
‘This is a very large country with a lot of people and every single one of them, pretty much, does not want to live here anymore. You can’t go east, north, or south. It only leaves one direction.’
In this rescue operation, he must also contend with Russian cyber-security attacks and airstrikes.
Stern said he will return to get more Americans and others if he has the money to do so, and if it is safe enough.
He launched Project Dynamo last year while watching the catastrophe in Kabul unfold.
‘If I have a little bit of money and it’s a higher threat, then I will move them in smaller groups. There are thousands of Americans and NATO allies that are in Ukraine right now.
James Berk, a New Jersey native, lives in Kyiv with his Ukrainian wife and their baby (left). It’s unclear if they are still in Ukraine. Earlier this week, the family drove west, towards Poland, as tensions flared. Katharine Quinn-Judge (right) is an analyst based in Kyiv. It is unclear if she has been able to escape the conflict yet
A wounded woman is seen as airstrike damages an apartment complex outside of Kharkiv, Ukraine
Ukrainian security forces accompany a wounded man after an airstrike hit an apartment complex in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv
Damage to an apartment building in Chuhuiv, Kharkiv region, is seen in footage released by the Ukrainian national guard
Vladimir Putin is pictured in the early hours of Thursday morning declaring war on Ukraine, in what he termed a ‘special military operation’
‘Our team in America and Canada are building manifests. We’re trying to put people together. We don’t know exactly how many there are but put it this way – there are never a shortage of customers in a situation like this.
‘As long as we have money, we’ll continue to operate. After 23 years in the military, we say “no one left behind.” Our oath is to support and defend…whether or not in uniform.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a press conference on Thursday. He has promised to give all Ukrainian civilians who want to fight firearms
‘It is against my grain to just sit and watch it on TV, knowing that we can help.’
Project Dynamo’s website – where people stranded in Ukraine can request assistance and where donations can be made – is found here.
On February 10 – some two weeks before the first airstrikes – Biden warned in an interview with NBC News: ‘American citizens should leave now.
‘It’s not like we’re dealing with a terrorist organization. We’re dealing with one of the largest armies in the world. It’s a very different situation, and things could go crazy quickly,’ he said.
He was referring to how American troops were able to evacuate citizens from Kabul in August in a shambolic operation during which 13 US servicemembers were slaughtered.
Ukraine closed its airspace last night, before the first airstrikes, in anticipation of the conflict.
Many fled to Lviv, one of the western-most cities in Ukraine, earlier this week as the situation intensified. Lviv is around 62 miles from the Polish border.
Stern is still urging anyone with the means of getting out without help to do so.
‘The ability to get out is deteriorating by the minute.
‘If you’re an American stuck in that zoo, it’s going to be pretty terrible. That’s why we’re here, to mitigate that as much as possible,’ he warned earlier this week.
Russian soldiers raise a flag over the Kakhovka Hydroelectric plant after attacking it with helicopters
Ukrainian servicemen get ready to repel an attack in Ukraine’s Lugansk region
Stern, who performed multiple tours in both the Army and the Navy, added: ‘If you can get out, leave. We’re not a travel agency. If you have the means to go, go.’
Among those who were hesitant to leave earlier in the week is New Jersey native James Berk, who lives in Kyiv with his Ukrainian wife and their one-month old daughter.
He fled west as tensions heated up earlier in the week but it’s unclear where he is now.
Pressure is mounting on President Biden to take a stronger stance.
In a statement on Thursday morning, former President George W. Bush said: ‘The American government and people must stand in solidarity with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people as they seek freedom and the right to choose their own future.
‘We cannot tolerate the authoritarian bullying and danger that Putin poses. Ukraine is our friend and democratic ally and deserves our full support during this most difficult time,’ he said.
Former President Donald J. Trump said that the situation would never have escalated to this extent if he was still in office.
‘Some people are saying why didn’t this take place over the last four years?
‘It didn’t for a very good reason and I’ll explain that to you someday, but it wouldn’t have taken place and it wouldn’t have taken place right now.
‘It’s a sad thing for the world and the country and a lot of people that will be needlessly killed,’ he said on FOX last night in a phone-in interview.