Ukrainians Who Worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv Plead for Help

In a letter to the State Department, staff voice fears they will be abandoned amid the Russian onslaught.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine
The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 24. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Putin’s War

Ukrainian employees of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv say they feel abandoned by the American government and left with neither support nor a means of escape as the Russian military continues its invasion of Ukraine.

The locally employed staff sent a letter to State Department officials pleading for help, including evacuation from fighting zones, relocation, visas to the United States, and clear lines of communication with the State Department in Washington, as fighting intensifies across Ukraine.

The letter, a copy of which was reviewed by Foreign Policy, mirrors concerns from thousands of local employees who worked for the American government in Afghanistan and were later abandoned as Taliban forces gained control of the country amid a U.S. withdrawal late last year.

Ukrainian employees of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv say they feel abandoned by the American government and left with neither support nor a means of escape as the Russian military continues its invasion of Ukraine.

The locally employed staff sent a letter to State Department officials pleading for help, including evacuation from fighting zones, relocation, visas to the United States, and clear lines of communication with the State Department in Washington, as fighting intensifies across Ukraine.

The letter, a copy of which was reviewed by Foreign Policy, mirrors concerns from thousands of local employees who worked for the American government in Afghanistan and were later abandoned as Taliban forces gained control of the country amid a U.S. withdrawal late last year.

Scores of local Ukrainian staff, some of whom have served at the U.S. Embassy for decades, urged the State Department to provide help for so-called special immigrant visas allowing them to safely move to the United States—the same visa offered to Afghans trying to flee the Taliban. The visa system is mired in bureaucratic red tape and plagued by backlogs.

“Before, we were told, that Ukraine is not Afghanistan,” the local employees wrote in the letter, which was sent privately to a group of State Department officials in Europe and Washington on Thursday. “We don’t want it to be, but if the difference is in size of bombs flying over our heads, it is not fair.”

“We have worked side by side with you for two decades, and always had strong faith in the work U.S. Government was doing,” the letter’s authors wrote. “We need your help now. This is not a time to wait and research. This is time to act. Your actions can save our lives.”

Ukrainian employees who worked on democracy and human rights projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have also been left in the lurch, with no support yet from Washington, according to a former USAID official and a State Department official familiar with the matter. At the time of writing, some were huddled in bomb shelters with their families frantically messaging current and former USAID officials asking for any guidance on how to stay safe, they said.

“I know it’s not the Taliban, but they should’ve had a plan for these people, it’s ridiculous,” said the former USAID official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for the safety of their colleagues in Ukraine. “How could they have Afghanistan nine months ago and not absorb any of this?”

In response, a USAID spokesperson said “the safety of staff is a top priority” for USAID Administrator Samantha Power.

A State Department spokesperson confirmed receiving the letter from the embassy staff members and said the department was “exploring all legal options to support our team at this difficult time.”

The State Department spokesperson said the department has already implemented paid administrative leave for staff unable to work, regardless of where they are, and offered salary advances to support local employees who need more resources. The department has also established a “dedicated communication channel for all LE (local employee) staff to contact us with their questions and concerns,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that special immigrant visas are available for employees who have worked for the U.S. government for “at least 15 years in exceptional circumstances.” It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the embassy staff members would meet the criteria.

USAID did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. government has employed a much smaller number of Ukrainians compared to the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. war and nation-building projects built up over two decades. Additionally, Ukrainians have easier paths to travel to Western countries (and enter European countries without visas)—but that all hinges on their ability to reach the safety of NATO and European Union border countries. Since the war began this week, Ukrainian airspace has been closed, and roads are clogged by civilians fleeing the fighting.

The letter underscores the desperate state of the local embassy employees caught up in a major land war in Europe. Ukrainian forces are engaged in fierce battles across multiple fronts to fend off assaults from one of the largest militaries in the world.

Ukrainian officials have pledged to carry on the fight against Russian forces despite the long odds, and U.S. officials believe Russia has faced fiercer resistance than it initially expected. But top Biden administration officials say there is a risk that Kyiv, the seat of government and the country’s most populous city, could fall to Russian forces in the coming days.

Kyiv is “certainly under threat, and it could well be under siege,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News in an interview late Thursday evening. “This is the opening salvo of a massive invasion, and we see this continuing and threatening other major cities in Ukraine.”

The United States and allies in NATO and the EU responded with sweeping economic sanctions against Russia and pledged more would come if fighting does not abate, all while continuing shipments of defensive weapons to the Ukrainian military. But NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg made clear on Thursday that no NATO forces would enter Ukraine to fight against Russia.

Most U.S. Embassy officials withdrew from Kyiv to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, in the days before Russia launched military operations.

The rapid pace of Moscow’s invading forces left scores of Ukrainians who have worked at the U.S. embassy and their family at high risk of being targeted for detention by Russian occupiers, according to one U.S. official familiar with the matter, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.

“It feels like how we handled Afghanistan, which means total failure,” the U.S. official said, adding that many lower- and midlevel State Department officials in the region were working overtime to help the Ukrainian staff. The task could prove exceedingly difficult as Russian forces advance further into the country and fighting near Kyiv escalates.

The letter also reflected growing frustration among local employees (known as “LEs” in the State Department) about the department’s response to the crisis immediately before the invasion began.

The letter cited a meeting that State Department officials held with the local employees on Wednesday, just before Russian forces attacked. “Yesterday we had a townhall, during which [Department of State] officials at very high level, failed to provide specific answers to over 30 questions, addressed by LE Staff,” the letter said. “Most answers were negative and referred to threat to LE Staff being ‘theoretical’. This was yesterday, and today LE Staff were waken up by the sound of exploding bombs in multiple cities around Ukraine.”

In response to questions about the town hall, the State Department spokesperson said: “As the Secretary noted in his communications with our employees at Embassy Kyiv in the last several weeks, we are deeply grateful for their extraordinary service, professionalism, and diligence.”

“He also told our [local] staff that we will do all we can to return to the Embassy and continue our work together to strengthen our relationship with Ukraine,” the spokesperson added. “We will continue to review the situation to determine what assistance we can provide to our LE staff in Ukraine.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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