Ukrainian Staff at U.S. Embassy, Left Behind, Say U.S. Is Backtracking on Promises of Support

“It looks as if some officials have already given up on Ukraine,” local staff told the State Department.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard on a road north of Kyiv.
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard on a road north of Kyiv.
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard on a road north of Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 12. Sergei Supinski/AFP via Getty Images

Local Ukrainian staff of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv are pleading with the U.S. government for help and accusing State Department officials of backtracking on promises of support as they scramble to survive or escape the Russian invasion.

A group of Ukrainian employees of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv sent a letter to State Department management on March 11 raising alarm bells about a “change in tone and open denial of prior promises” by State Department officials in Washington after the Ukrainian employees had requested financial support, help with safely evacuating their families, and possible avenues for visas to the United States.

The letter, obtained by Foreign Policy, was written by the leaders of the embassy’s local staff committee and outlined the concerns of some 600 Ukrainians who work for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Ukraine. They said State Department officials in Washington who spoke to them over the course of several virtual town hall meetings had reneged on promises to provide cash salary payments and other long-term financial assistance to the Ukrainian employees whose lives have been upended by the war and the closure of the U.S. Embassy.

Local Ukrainian staff of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv are pleading with the U.S. government for help and accusing State Department officials of backtracking on promises of support as they scramble to survive or escape the Russian invasion.

A group of Ukrainian employees of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv sent a letter to State Department management on March 11 raising alarm bells about a “change in tone and open denial of prior promises” by State Department officials in Washington after the Ukrainian employees had requested financial support, help with safely evacuating their families, and possible avenues for visas to the United States.

The letter, obtained by Foreign Policy, was written by the leaders of the embassy’s local staff committee and outlined the concerns of some 600 Ukrainians who work for the U.S. diplomatic mission in Ukraine. They said State Department officials in Washington who spoke to them over the course of several virtual town hall meetings had reneged on promises to provide cash salary payments and other long-term financial assistance to the Ukrainian employees whose lives have been upended by the war and the closure of the U.S. Embassy.

“While we realize that some questions may not have specific answers at the moment, for us, the lack of consistency and ability to at least have one part of our lives secured, is really frightening,” they wrote.

The State Department previously vowed to support local staff in the wake of the Russian invasion, including by continuing to pay their wages and classifying them as on temporary travel duty so they could have an income stream should they be forced to flee Kyiv ahead of the Russian military advance.

The letter, however, reflects mounting alarm among local embassy staff that the department isn’t honoring its commitment.

The local employees also asserted that the State Department officials in Washington who addressed them told them they should consider applying for refugee status and additional support from European countries—not the United States—and cast doubt on whether the U.S. officials understood what it would take for them to apply for refugee status in Europe.

“Those of you in regular contact with [locally employed] Staff know first-hand what we are going through: our families are separated, many shelter in basements to stay alive, some fighting in the battlefields, others displaced, children are showing signs of stress from the trauma they have experienced and falling behind schooling and care, and none of us able to sleep through the night for 20 days,” the letter reads.

“Amidst all this, receiving a coldhearted message from the [State Department] official about the need to apply for protected status or register as refugees to rely on assistance in European countries was yet another blow. Needless to say that the refugee status has certain downsides which obviously have not been researched by the speaker in advance.”

The letter’s authors also said the State Department officials openly questioned whether the embassy could return as it had been before the invasion. “All of us are confident that the Ukrainian Army will defeat the [R]ussian enemy sooner or later and we will be able to come back home and continue our lives and careers,” the letter reads. “But, when at this stage, we hear at the town hall from the same [State Department] official that ‘the U.S. Embassy work will never be the same as in December 2021’—it is really painful and hard to comprehend. It looks as if some officials have already given up on Ukraine. Can you imagine how this sounds to our colleagues who are now at the front line and defend our country in this war?”

Eric Rubin, the president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), said the State Department has made some progress in expanding financial support to local embassy staff in Ukraine in recent weeks, but it needs to do much more. AFSA, the union that represents U.S. diplomats, operates independently from the State Department.

“It is about morality and decency, but it’s also about whether anyone would want to work for us again overseas if we don’t show that we would do everything we can for them in a situation like this,” Rubin said.

In response, a State Department spokesperson said the department was in “regular” touch with locally employed staff and is “exploring all legal options to support our team at this difficult time.”

The spokesperson said the department has “implemented paid administrative leave for all staff unable to work or telework, regardless of their location,” provided “additional financial support to local staff, including the option of salary advances,”  and established a “dedicated communications channel” with local employees  to share their concerns with the department.

A U.S.-based nonprofit, the Mountain Seed Foundation, founded by a former Marine Corps officer who served at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, started a GoFundMe fundraiser to raise $25,000 to support the Ukrainian members of the embassy staff and their families. Among the donors to the campaign appeared to be Geoffrey Pyatt, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. (The U.S. Embassy in Athens, where Pyatt is currently posted, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

According to several U.S. diplomats in contact with Ukrainian embassy employees, some of those employees have fled to the relative safety of western Ukraine, while others have stayed and volunteered to join the Ukrainian defense forces and fight the Russian invasion. Still others are trapped in Kyiv or still have family trapped in Kyiv as Russian forces continue their offensive to encircle and capture the Ukrainian capital.

The State Department’s muddled response to the plight of local staff at the embassy has incensed some rank-and-file diplomats, who privately fume that the department appears to be abandoning longtime employees in their hour of need.

“How can you tell me you didn’t have any contingency plan for the [local employees], when you’re going around all of Europe saying this invasion is going to happen months in advance?” said one exasperated U.S. diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media. “The State Department never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to do the right thing.”

The department’s actions have also raised questions within the diplomatic corps about why it never had any plan to support the evacuation of its local staff, given the months of advance warning the U.S. government had of a possible Russian invasion.

“There are still legitimate reasons to ask why we did not help them evacuate Kyiv when we have dozens of abandoned embassy vehicles with full gas tanks in the courtyard of our embassy that’s padlocked in Kyiv,” Rubin said.

“All the bureaucratic reasons for not doing that do not strike me as sufficient or appropriate,” he added. “That’s done, it’s not possible to undo what is done, but it is possible to do the right thing going forward.”

Beginning in the fall of 2021, the United States was at the forefront of efforts to warn Ukraine and allies and partners in Europe about Russia’s military buildup and the risk of a renewed invasion. In January, the State Department ordered nonessential U.S. staff and families of diplomats to leave the country, to the irritation of Ukrainian officials, who accused Washington of stoking panic and unrest before Russia had committed to invading. By mid-February, all U.S. staff had evacuated, and the embassy in Kyiv was shuttered. Many interpreted the move as an effort to avoid a repeat of the chaotic evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as the Taliban took hold of the country in August 2021.

But U.S. diplomats said the plight of Ukrainian employees shows that the department has not yet learned all the lessons from the U.S. exit from Afghanistan, where in its hasty withdrawal it saved tens of thousands of Afghans but abandoned thousands of others, including some embassy employees and their staff, to an uncertain fate under Taliban rule.

“There should be basic crisis emergency planning,” Rubin said of the parallels between Ukraine and Afghanistan. “In a life-or-death situation, what do we do for our local employees? Clearly that has not been thought out sufficiently.”

Update, March 16, 2022: This article was updated to include comments from a State Department spokesperson.

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

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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