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U.S. officials discussed Ukrainian president leaving capital if Russia attacks

WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials have discussed plans with the Ukrainian government for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to leave Kyiv in the event of a Russian invasion, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

Under a plan that’s been discussed, Zelenskyy would relocate to Lviv in western Ukraine, about 50 miles from the Polish border, the people familiar with the discussions said. 

Separately, President Joe Biden and Zelenskyy spoke by phone on Monday, a White House official confirmed.

The U.S. evacuated most of its embassy staff in Kyiv on Feb. 12 and moved operations to Lviv because of security concerns about Russia’s continued military buildup on the Ukrainian border. U.S. officials are now warning of an imminent invasion that could reach Kyiv.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment when asked about discussions between U.S. and Ukrainian officials about plans for Zelenskyy if Russia invades.

A spokesperson for Zelenskyy said the Ukrainian leader and Biden have not discussed his possible departure from Kyiv and relocation to Lviv. The spokesperson was unaware if those discussions have been had among lower-level officials in the U.S. and Ukrainian governments.

Feb. 20, 202203:06

Despite Zelenskyy’s comments in recent weeks that the U.S. and Western governments were overstating the threat of a Russian offensive, his government has been discreetly preparing for a possible Russian military attack and shifted sensitive IT infrastructure and military command elements outside of Kyiv, two sources with knowledge of the matter said.

“They’ve done everything they need to do to prepare,” the source said. “They’ve done it very quietly.” 

While trying to avoid fueling panic in its public statements, the Ukrainian government also has tried to convey to the Russians that they will face stiff resistance.

Still, Zelenskyy is viewed by administration officials as increasingly vulnerable, the people familiar with the discussions about an exit strategy said.  

Administration officials did not believe it was wise for Zelenskyy to leave Kyiv on Saturday to travel to Munich. But Zelenskyy made the trip anyway and met with Vice President Kamala Harris on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

The people familiar with the discussions about Zelenskyy’s exit strategy said they did not know if the topic was discussed in his meeting with Harris. 

John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said Kyiv has taken steps to ensure the government will be able to operate without disruption if there is an attack, though he did not specify where the Cabinet would relocate in Ukraine.

“My understanding is they’ve made contingency plans for a continuance of government,” Hersbt said.

Dan De Luce, Erin McLaughlin and Peter Alexander contributed.