So far, the decision has been to wait, said a US official familiar with the debate. “It seems every agency has its share of skeptics,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations. “Half of the [White House] and half the state wants to do it. Other halves object and say too soon.
A senior State Department official said everyone wanted to reopen the embassy, but camps have different standards as to when it is safe enough to do so. A State Department spokesperson said there was no timeline to announce, but “our team is actively planning and we look forward to resuming embassy operations in Ukraine.” A second State Department official who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak on the matter said there were, however, no preparations underway to immediately reopen the facility. kyiv.
The discussion continues as Russia has withdrawn its troops from the Kyiv region and is focusing its attacks on eastern Ukraine, giving the capital some breathing room. But Moscow can be unpredictable. On Friday, Russian missiles hit a factory on the outskirts of kyiv which it said had produced the Ukrainian missiles that hit Russia’s flagship cruiser Moskva and sank it in the Black Sea.
On Monday, it launched missiles at Lviv, a city in western Ukraine where US diplomats had, in an earlier phase, temporarily relocated from kyiv. At least seven people died.
Nonetheless, several U.S. lawmakers from both parties have called on Biden to send U.S. diplomats back to the Ukrainian capital.
“American embassies have operated in similar environments before, and a renewed American presence in Kyiv is vital to efforts to help Ukrainians,” said Senator James Risch of Idaho, a leading Republican in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. Risch also urged Biden to formally appoint an ambassador to Ukraine, a position that has remained vacant for years for various reasons.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (DN.J.) argued the embassy should reopen because Kyiv is “the moral capital of the world and the site of the most important American foreign policy endeavor in years.”
And William Taylor, former US ambassador to Ukraine, said a number of US diplomats assigned to Ukraine told him they were eager to return to kyiv. It’s not just symbolism; US diplomats believe they can do their jobs better in the capital, where they have more access to Ukrainians from all walks of life, including government officials.
“They listen, get messages, hear what Ukrainians are thinking,” Taylor said, noting that such exchanges go both ways. “You can’t do this from any place other than Kyiv.”
It’s an argument echoed by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who pointed out that the Biden team “didn’t even suggest they would send their diplomats anywhere in the country.”
“U.S. officials returning to Ukraine would enhance our ability to coordinate with security forces and various contributing nations so that we can collectively support Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield,” Inhofe said in a statement.
The administration’s reluctance to resume diplomatic activities in Kyiv is surprising given what Blinken and other top Biden officials have advocated in recent years.
In an October speech on modernizing the State Department, Blinken laid out concerns he had heard from many U.S. diplomats about how security requirements were making it harder for them to do their jobs. Diplomats lamented, among other things, the time it took to establish new diplomatic facilities and the way embassies were often built in areas far from major centers, making it difficult to schedule meetings. Blinken is committed to reducing these barriers.
“A risk-free world is not a world in which American diplomacy can deliver,” Blinken said in that speech. “We have to accept the risk and manage it intelligently.”
Two other senior administration officials — Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya and Deputy Principal National Security Adviser Jon Finer — co-authored a November 2020 report on revitalizing U.S. foreign policy that urged the Department of State to “articulate greater risk tolerance and moral courage at the heart of a needed culture change.
On Tuesday, Undersecretary for Management Brian McKeon sent an email to the department encouraging staff members to submit examples of innovative and smart risk-taking in their diplomatic work. The email also directed staff members to a recently updated policy on risk management, arguing it was time to move away from the post-Benghazi mindset.
“The Secretary, senior leaders and I support you as you make thoughtful decisions about risk,” McKeon wrote in the email obtained by POLITICO. The note did not mention Ukraine.
Some U.S. lawmakers have also introduced legislation aimed at urging U.S. diplomats to leave behind what many call a “bunker mentality.” Such moves come as Washington grows increasingly concerned about China’s growing diplomatic influence around the world.
But while diplomats from other countries often find it difficult to travel to a host country, the reality is that American diplomats have a bigger target on their backs because of America’s global standing.
The Biden administration closed the embassy in Kyiv in mid-February after months of warning Ukraine and other countries that Russian leader Vladimir Putin had beefed up his forces in a likely plan for an invasion.
The embassy withdrawal occurred in stages over several weeks, with voluntary and orderly departures of diplomats and their families and the relocation of some core staff, first to Lviv and then to neighboring Poland. . The departures angered Ukrainian officials as they seemed more skeptical of Putin’s invasion and were trying to maintain political stability in their country.
The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine is one of many U.S. outposts that are closed, operating at reduced capacity, or whose diplomats are based elsewhere.
The US embassy in Kabul closed its doors last year when the Afghan government fell to the Taliban Islamist militia. Some US diplomats assigned to Afghanistan now operate from Doha, Qatar. It is unclear when US diplomats will return to Kabul, especially since the United States has not officially recognized the Taliban government.
In Iraq, the US Embassy in Baghdad is still open, despite security risks. This embassy, however, is located in the heavily fortified Green Zone of the Iraqi capital, and it is a massive complex built with security as the top priority.
The United States has drastically reduced activities at its embassy in Cuba in recent years, in part due to the still unsolved cases of illnesses known as “Havana syndrome”. The Biden administration has promised it will soon resume some visa processing and expand other functions at the embassy.
Some Libyan leaders have urged the United States to reopen its embassy in Tripoli, saying it would send a signal to the world that Libya is moving beyond the chaos that has consumed it for much of the past decade. Despite considering the idea, however, the Biden administration has yet to reopen that mission, and many US diplomats focused on Libya operate from Tunisia.
The Libyan file is a sensitive point because of the 2012 attack in Benghazi, which killed four Americans, including the American ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. The politically polarized debate in Washington over what happened has rocked the State Department badly, and the fallout is often blamed on the agency’s overprotective attitude toward its diplomats.
“The overwhelming majority of Foreign Service officers are willing to accept the physical risks of being where the action is,” said Malinowski, who has served as a senior State Department official. “The problem is that since the post-Benghazi witch hunt in Congress, successive administrations have been wary of political risk.”
The war in Ukraine also led to the closure of the US embassy in Belarus, whose dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, sided with Putin. State Department officials said they had no update on the status of that diplomatic mission. The US Embassy in Moscow, however, continues to operate, but with reduced capacity.
Capitol Hill staffers are studying the Kyiv embassy issue, with some noting that there are different possible configurations for a “reopening.” It doesn’t have to require a full endowment, after all; a handful of American diplomats might arrive and unlock the doors of the embassy at first.
“The question is really ‘How can the United States best re-establish a diplomatic presence and protect personnel from harm? “Said a Senate aide.
There are also big questions to consider. Would returning the Marines – who guard US embassies – inside the country violate Biden’s promise that no troops will be on the ground? And if, for example, the Russian military hits the US embassy, does that count as an attack on America that would trigger the mutual defense clause of the NATO military alliance?
That could depend on a number of factors, national security lawyers say, including whether the attack was deliberate, whether it would meet the threshold of an “armed attack” under the UN Charter and, in ultimately, how the United States and NATO together decide to respond to it.
Pressure on the Biden administration to reopen the embassy in Kyiv is likely to grow if Ukraine’s military continues to hold back its Russian enemies in the weeks and months to come.
For now, the administration is also considering sending a senior official, such as Blinken or Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, to Kyiv. Other national leaders, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, recently visited the Ukrainian capital.
The administration, however, ruled out sending Biden himself
“It’s not in the plans of the President of the United States,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said of the idea. “Perhaps we should all be relieved about that.”
“You’re welcome, America,” she added. “We need him to do a lot of things.”