WASHINGTON – President Biden’s election as ambassador to Ukraine will strengthen relations between Washington and Kiev after years without a Senate-confirmed envoy in the post, veteran diplomats say, but a return to a US diplomatic presence during a war poses new risks to the Biden administration.
After months of delays confusing veteran diplomats, Mr. Biden on Monday his intention to nominate for the post Bridget Brink, the current US ambassador to Slovakia. Ms. Brink, who is based in Michigan, joined the State Department in 1996 and has served in Serbia, Uzbekistan, and Georgia.
If confirmed, Brink will be a high-level interlocutor between the Ukrainian government and the Biden administration, which has communicated on an unusually direct basis. Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken talks several times a week with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, and other top Biden officials are in regular contact with their equivalents. Although the United States has been represented by a well-functioning ambassador in Kristina Kvien, analysts say there is no substitute for a designated official in the country who can coordinate between multiple departments and agencies.
For now, Ms. Brink no obvious basis for operations. The State Department closed its Kyiv embassy shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 and subsequently ordered all US diplomats out of the country. No one is known to have returned.
However, after a secret visit to Ukraine over the weekend, Mr Blinken told reporters that the United States would begin restoring a diplomatic presence in the country and that he hoped the embassy could reopen “within a few weeks.”
The return of American diplomats to the country, even to western and central cities hours from the current front lines, inevitably comes with some danger. Although Russian forces have consolidated to wage a brutal ground war in Ukraine’s south and east, they are still carrying out periodic attacks across the country, including a mid-April missile attack in Lviv that killed eight people.
From this week, diplomats who have worked from eastern Poland will take day trips to the relatively peaceful city of Lviv in western Ukraine, added US officials, and return to Poland for the night.
“We do it deliberately, we do it carefully, we do it with the safety of our staff at the forefront,” said Mr. Blinken.
During his visit to Kyiv, Mr Blinken said he saw people walking the streets, “proof that the battle for Kiev was won and that, at least from the surface, there seems to be a normal life in Kiev.”
Ms. Brink would be the first Senate-confirmed ambassador to hold the post since mid-2019, when President Donald J. Trump removed Marie L. Yovanovitch, a career diplomat and anti-corruption advocate who was criticized by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer. Rudolph W. Giuliani and employees like Mr. Giuliani tried to dig up dirt in the country on Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter.
In 2019, at his swearing-in ceremony for the Slovak ambassador, Brink spoke about his grandfather’s and her husband’s grandparents’ experiences in Europe during World War II. In February, Brink visited the border between Ukraine and Slovakia to witness the arrival of Ukrainian refugees. “My heart is with every victim of this senseless war,” she said, according to a press release from the State Department.
Congressional officials noted that Mr Biden had not yet formally submitted his nomination, although the Biden administration months ago informed the Ukrainian government that Ms Brink was its choice for the job. It is customary to seek prior approval of ambassadorial elections from host governments, and Ukraine was slow to sign for reasons that are unclear.
In a statement Monday, Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, said the Senate “will prioritize her confirmation when she comes before the Senate and move her as soon as possible.”
Republicans have blocked or delayed dozens of Mr Biden’s diplomatic choices, but an aide to a Senate Republican active in foreign affairs said Monday he did not expect much opposition to Brink’s nomination.
It is unclear how much protection Mrs Brink and other US diplomats in Kiev will have. U.S. embassies around the world are guarded by U.S. naval contingents that have spoken for dozens in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. But U.S. officials have declined to say whether troops will accompany the returned diplomats.
Eric S. Rubin, president of the American Foreign Service Association, called Brink “an excellent qualified senior foreign service officer” and said he hoped she could be confirmed soon. He welcomed Mr Blinken’s plan to reopen the embassy in Kiev.
Some former diplomats and US officials have been concerned that the Biden administration removed its staff from Ukraine too soon earlier in the year. U.S. diplomats left the country before some of their foreign counterparts.
In a speech in October, Mr Blinken himself warned that the Foreign Office had become too risk-averse, saying diplomats could not function effectively in dangerous areas if they did not accept any risk.
Russia-Ukraine war: key developments
The United States wants to see Russia weakened. The United States sharpened its messages about the Ukraine war, saying that the American goal was not only to thwart the Russian invasion, but also to weaken Russia so that it could no longer carry out such military aggression anywhere.
“A world without risk is not a world where American diplomacy can deliver,” Mr Blinken said. “We have to accept risks and deal with them smartly.”
Before the reduction of staff, about 800 to 900 people worked at the US Embassy in Kiev. About 300 of them were Americans, and the rest were Ukrainian employees.
William B. Taylor Jr., a retired veteran diplomat who twice served as ambassador to Ukraine, said he had spoken to U.S. diplomats and Ukrainian citizens who had worked at the embassy and learned that they were eager to return.
“For the diplomats, that’s what they do,” he said. “For most of the staff in the State Department attached abroad, they understand the risks.”
Taylor said it was unlikely the embassy would be the target of a Russian attack, and the fact that some U.S. allies had already decided to return gave greater impetus to Washington.
But even if Russia does not intend to harm Americans, war zones are always dangerous. During NATO’s bombing campaign of Serbia in 1999, the United States mistakenly hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese state media employees.
The Foreign Ministry stepped up protectionist measures for diplomats after President Vladimir V. Putin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and sent Russian weapons and troops to support a separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Taylor said that when he first served as ambassador, from 2006 to 2009, he could travel around without diplomatic security. After he returned in 2019, after Mr. Trump’s decision to remove Ms. Yovanovitch from the job, he could not run in the capital without a security detail.
Like many American embassies, it is housed in Kiev in a fortified building outside the city center. Ukrainians are helping guard the embassy, and a small group of U.S. Marines were also stationed there before the war began in February.
U.S. officials have been particularly wary of diplomatic risks following militants’ attack in 2012 on a U.S. diplomatic link in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Republicans, including Mike Pompeo, a congressman who later became CIA director and secretary of state, harassed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for years with accusations of negligence.
Security will be one of many issues that Mrs Brink is expected to juggle in Kiev if she is confirmed by the Senate. She will probably often visit the Presidential Palace in the heart of Kiev and the Foreign Ministry headquarters. She is expected to help establish secure communication between Ukrainian and US leaders, and she will be tasked with forwarding requests for help from the Ukrainians to Washington.