Puzzle in Ukraine Crisis: Where’s the U.S. Ambassador?

The New York Times

Puzzle in Ukraine Crisis: Where’s the U.S. Ambassador?

Michael Crowley – February 12, 2022

A photograph shows the US Embassy building in Kyiv, on January 24, 2022 – Ukraine on January 24 said it was “premature” of the United States to evacuate the families of its diplomatic staff in Kyiv due to fears of a looming Russian invasion. (Photo by Sergei Supinsky / AFP) (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images) (SERGEI SUPINSKY via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — It is a puzzle at the heart of the crisis over Russia’s threat to invade Ukraine: Why has President Joe Biden, more than one year into his presidency, failed to name an ambassador to Kyiv?

Neither the Biden administration nor Ukraine’s government is providing a clear explanation for a delay that career diplomats say would be baffling and inexcusable even in ordinary times, never mind at a moment when the U.S. relationship with Ukraine is as consequential as it has ever been.

Experts say that the presence of a full-time ambassador could help to smooth awkward relations that have emerged between the Biden administration and the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy despite Ukraine’s heavy reliance on Washington for its defense against Russia. But it is also unclear how eager the Ukrainians are to receive an envoy from Biden, who submitted a candidate to Kyiv for approval weeks ago.

The position comes with an extra dose of intrigue, given that it has remained empty since 2019, when former President Donald Trump removed its last full-time occupant, Marie Yovanovitch. That action, which is the subject of a federal investigation, contributed to Trump’s first impeachment by Congress on charges that he abused his foreign policy leverage over Ukraine for political purposes.

U.S. officials do not dispute reports, which emerged two months ago, that Biden intends to nominate a career diplomat, Bridget Brink, the current U.S. ambassador to Slovakia. The United States sent Brink’s name to Ukraine’s government last month for customary review and approval by the host government, in a diplomatic custom known by the French term agrément, and Biden officials are eager for Kyiv’s clearance so they can submit her to the Senate for confirmation. During a visit to Kyiv on Jan. 19, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he “would anticipate that a nomination will be forthcoming very shortly.”

It is unclear why Ukraine’s government has not signed off on Brink. While it is not unusual for a host government to spend a few weeks vetting a potential ambassador, the timeline is frequently shorter, and diplomats say they would expect Ukraine to welcome more high-level American attention.

Representatives of Ukraine’s foreign ministry and its embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to requests for comment. Last week, the 112 Ukraine television channel reported that the country’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, had confirmed that his government was considering her candidacy.

If Russia begins a full-scale invasion of Ukraine that threatens Kyiv, of course, it is possible that U.S. Embassy personnel would be evacuated from the country, leaving any new ambassador without a safe destination — and potentially fueling regrets that one had not been installed months earlier.

In place of a senior diplomat in Kyiv with Biden’s seal of approval, the U.S. Embassy is run by its chargé d’affaires, Kristina Kvien. Diplomatic veterans said Kvien is highly regarded within the Foreign Service and in Ukraine. But she by definition lacks the stature of a White House-appointed and Senate-confirmed emissary.

“It’s a perception problem,” said Steven Pifer, a U.S. ambassador to Kyiv during the Clinton administration who praised Kvien’s performance. “The Ukrainians are wondering, ‘Why is there no American ambassador here?’”

Having an ambassador in place would help the two capitals coordinate their views and public messages, said Eric Rubin, the president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union and professional group that represents U.S. diplomats.

In recent weeks, Ukrainian officials have repeatedly diverged from or contradicted key U.S. talking points. Mindful of the need to avoid panic, for instance, they have disputed Washington’s dire warnings that a full-scale invasion could be “imminent,” leading Biden officials to temporarily agree to stop using that word before escalating their warnings again Friday.

“The absence of not just a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine but even a nominee to be ambassador to Ukraine at a time of crisis is worrisome and regrettable,” said Rubin, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv in the 1990s.

In general, Rubin said, “not sending an ambassador to a country can be taken as a signal that we don’t care.”

Biden has yet to nominate ambassadors to more than two dozen countries, but few if any are as significant as Ukraine, and diplomats and experts say they are mystified as to why he took so long to decide on a putative nominee. Administration officials have declined to discuss the source of the delay.

Some diplomats and experts speculated that the White House had little appetite for a Senate confirmation hearing that could devolve into a debate about Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that members of both parties have criticized Biden for not opposing more vigorously. Republicans might also use a confirmation hearing to dredge up the past business activities in Ukraine of Biden’s son, Hunter, although one Senate Republican official said he was aware of no plans to do so.

Also unclear is why Ukraine might not have immediately signed off on Brink, a Foreign Service officer for more than two decades who has been posted in two other former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan and Georgia.

Zelenskyy’s office has consolidated much of its foreign policy activity with his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, who speaks regularly to Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in what has become the center of gravity of the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship. It is possible the Ukrainians prefer to keep it that way.

Ukrainian officials in recent years have also seen American ambassadors as patronizing scolds who continually issue statements and call meetings to reprimand Ukrainian elites over insider dealing and good governance failures.

And then there is the memory of the Trump years, and the dismissal of Yovanovitch. In the events leading to his impeachment, Trump, hoping to damage Biden before the 2020 election, leveraged U.S. military aid to pressure Zelenskyy to investigate Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian energy company, according to testimony during the impeachment hearings.

In April 2019, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani persuaded the president to remove Yovanovitch from the position after she opposed Giuliani’s efforts there to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden. (No evidence of wrongdoing was found on the part of Hunter Biden or his father. Trump denied doing anything improper and was acquitted in his Senate trial.)

In a reminder that the position can get tangled in Ukraine’s contentious domestic politics, some Ukrainian officials encouraged Giuliani’s opposition to Yovanovitch because her focus on anti-corruption initiatives threatened their interests. The country’s top prosecutor at the time, Yuriy Lutsenko, referred to Yovanovitch in a text message to an associate as an “idiot,” according to evidence released during the impeachment proceedings.

It was Yermak, then in a different government role, who tried to smooth the situation and create a Ukrainian strategy for responding, including a plan to work directly with the White House, when possible.

Rubin, of the Foreign Service officers’ association, noted that Ukraine is just one of dozens of U.S. ambassadorial posts that remain unfilled. While Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, have stalled many of Biden’s nominees for months, the White House has yet to submit candidates to lead nearly 30 U.S. embassies.

Biden only just last month nominated Jane Hartley, a Democratic Party donor and Carter administration aide, as his pick for ambassador to Britain. Her nomination is pending. His selection in July of an ambassador to Germany, the former president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutmann, was confirmed by the Senate on Feb. 8.

And as the United States conducts tense diplomacy with Russia to prevent an assault on Ukraine, Biden has yet to name an ambassador to Moscow. The role is still held by John Sullivan, who was appointed by Trump.

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.