WASHINGTON — President Biden’s choice of 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 risk for the Biden administration.
After months of delays that confused experienced diplomats, Mr. Biden announced on Monday his intention to nominate Bridget Brink, the current US ambassador to Slovakia, for Bridget Brink’s position. Born in Michigan, Ms. Brink joined the State Department in 1996 and has served in Serbia, Uzbekistan and Georgia.
If confirmed, Ms. Brink will become a high-level interlocutor between the Ukrainian government and the Biden government, who have communicated on an unusually direct basis. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken speaks 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 is represented by a capable acting 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 the time being, Mrs. Brink has no clear base of operations. The State Department closed its embassy in Kiev shortly before the Russian 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 covert visit to Ukraine over the weekend, Mr Blinken told reporters that the United States would begin re-establishing a diplomatic presence in the country and that he hoped the embassy could reopen “in a few weeks”.
The return of American diplomats to the country, even hours from today’s front lines to western and central cities, inevitably carries a measure of danger. Although Russian forces have consolidated to wage a brutal ground war in southern and eastern Ukraine, they still carry out periodic strikes across the country, including a mid-April rocket attack in Lviv that killed eight people.
Starting this week, diplomats who have worked from eastern Poland will make day trips to the relatively quiet city of Lviv in western Ukraine, US officials added, before returning to Poland for the night.
“We do it intentionally, we do it carefully, we do it with the safety of our staff in mind first,” said Mr. shine.
During his visit to Kiev, Mr. Shining that he saw people walking through the streets, “a testament to the fact that the battle for Kiev has been won and that from the surface at least there is normal life in Kiev.”
Ms. Brink would be the first Senate-confirmed ambassador to hold the position since mid-2019, when President Donald J. Trump Marie L. Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who opposed attempts by his personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, to dig. dirt in the country on the son of Mr. Biden, Hunter.
In 2019, during her swearing-in ceremony for the ambassadorship of Slovakia, Ms Brink spoke about the experiences of her grandfather and her husband’s grandparents in Europe during the Second World War. In February, Ms 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, even though the Biden administration had notified the Ukrainian government months ago that Ms. Brink was her choice for the job. It is common to ask for pre-approval for host government ambassadorships, and Ukraine has been slow to sign for reasons that are unclear.
In a statement Monday, Democratic leader Senator Chuck Schumer said the Senate will “prioritise her confirmation once she comes before the Senate and move her as soon as possible.”
Republicans have blocked or postponed dozens of Biden’s diplomatic picks, but a Senate Republican aide who works on foreign affairs said on Monday he didn’t expect much resistance to Ms. Brink’s nomination.
It is unclear how much protection Ms Brink and other American diplomats will receive in Kiev. US embassies around the world are guarded by US Marines, dozens of them in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. But US officials have declined to say whether troops will accompany the returning diplomats.
Eric S. Rubin, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, called Ms. Brink is “an excellently 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 were concerned that the Biden administration had removed its staff from Ukraine too quickly earlier this year. American diplomats left the country before some of their foreign counterparts.
In a speech in October, Mr Blinken himself warned that the State Department had become too risk averse, saying diplomats would not be able to function effectively in dangerous areas if they did not accept risk.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
The US wants to see Russia weakened. The United States sharpened its coverage of the war in Ukraine, saying that the US 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 in which American diplomacy can pay off,” said Mr Blinken. “We have to accept risks and manage them smartly.”
Before the staff withdrawal, about 800 to 900 people worked at the US embassy in Kiev. About 300 of them were Americans and the rest were Ukrainian workers.
William B. Taylor Jr., a retired veteran diplomat who has served twice as ambassador to Ukraine, said he spoke to US diplomats and Ukrainian citizens who had worked in the embassy and was told they would like to return.
“For the diplomats, this is what they do,” he said. “For most State Department employees who are assigned abroad, they understand the risks.”
Mr Taylor said the embassy was unlikely to be the target of a Russian attack, and the fact that some US allies had already decided to return gave Washington a bigger boost.
But even if Russia has no intention of harming Americans, war zones are always dangerous. During the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999, the United States accidentally hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese state media workers.
The Foreign Ministry increased protection 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 insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Mr Taylor said when he first served as ambassador, from 2006 to 2009, he was able to travel without diplomatic security. After returning in 2019, following Mr Trump’s decision to remove Ms Yovanovitch from the job, he was unable to run to the capital without a security detail.
Like many US embassies, the one in Kiev is housed in a fortified building outside the city center. Ukrainians help guard the embassy and a small group of US Marines was also stationed there before the war started in February.
US officials were especially wary of diplomatic risk following the 2012 attack by militants on a US diplomatic compound 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, tormented Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for years with accusations of negligence.
Security will be one of the many issues Ms Brink will have to juggle in Kiev if confirmed by the Senate. She will likely often visit the presidential palace in the heart of Kiev and the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She is expected to help establish secure communications between Ukrainian and US leaders, and she will be tasked with relaying requests for help from the Ukrainians to Washington.