U.S. Envoy Offers Limited Lifelines to Local Ukraine Embassy Staff

State Department tells local employees it left behind that the U.S. will continue paying them for “as long as possible.”

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
A woman pushes a baby carriage past the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv
A woman pushes a baby carriage past the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv
A woman pushes a baby carriage past the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on Jan. 24. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration’s top Europe envoy has urged eligible local staff who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to apply as soon as possible for special visas that would allow them to permanently relocate to the United States. 

A copy of the letter, written by Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried and obtained by Foreign Policy, sheds light on internal U.S. government efforts to assist the hundreds of Ukrainians who had staffed the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The letter also reveals how top U.S. officials believe the conflict could drag on for months or even longer, as Donfried urged them to apply for visas to the United States and warned of constraints on how much support the State Department could provide them in the long term. 

“If the crisis persists, there may come a time when we will have to make difficult decisions about our operations and your employment status—but we are not there yet,” Donfried wrote to the local Ukrainian embassy staff. “What we can guarantee is that we will keep you informed every step of the way to give you enough time to make decisions about what is best for your personal situation.”

The Biden administration’s top Europe envoy has urged eligible local staff who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to apply as soon as possible for special visas that would allow them to permanently relocate to the United States. 

A copy of the letter, written by Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried and obtained by Foreign Policy, sheds light on internal U.S. government efforts to assist the hundreds of Ukrainians who had staffed the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The letter also reveals how top U.S. officials believe the conflict could drag on for months or even longer, as Donfried urged them to apply for visas to the United States and warned of constraints on how much support the State Department could provide them in the long term. 

“If the crisis persists, there may come a time when we will have to make difficult decisions about our operations and your employment status—but we are not there yet,” Donfried wrote to the local Ukrainian embassy staff. “What we can guarantee is that we will keep you informed every step of the way to give you enough time to make decisions about what is best for your personal situation.”

Donfried urged the locally employed embassy staff who are eligible for U.S. special immigrant visas to begin their applications immediately. “I strongly encourage those of you who are eligible, which is nearly half of all Mission Ukraine [local] staff, to take advantage of the program and apply now,” she wrote. 

The special immigrant visa (SIV) program is a special program that grants permanent U.S. residence to foreign citizens who have aided the U.S. government. As the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, the SIV program became one of the main conduits for tens of thousands of Afghans who aided the U.S. war effort there to try to flee as the government collapsed and the Taliban took control of the country. But the program was mired in red tape and bureaucratic backlogs, leaving thousands of Afghans in limbo or unable to leave the country despite being targeted for Taliban reprisals. 

Under U.S. immigration law, only Ukrainians who have worked for the U.S. government for a minimum of 15 years are eligible to apply for SIVs. Some 600 Ukrainian citizens worked at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv before U.S. diplomats evacuated to Lviv shortly ahead of the Russian invasion last month. Donfried indicated in her letter that nearly half—about 300—of those employees would be eligible for SIVs, leaving an uncertain fate for the other half of employees. Altering the law on SIVs would require action by Congress, not the State Department.  

While the Russian invasion unfolded, Ukrainian employees at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv pleaded to the State Department for support in evacuating fighting zones and securing visas for them and their families to the United States. Those local employees sent letters to the State Department saying they felt abandoned by Washington and accusing the State Department of backtracking on promises to provide them with long-term financial assistance.

“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,” leaders of the local employees wrote in a letter to the State Department earlier this month obtained by Foreign Policy

Donfried’s letter was meant to address their concerns and allay their fears, but she also outlined limits on the support the State Department could provide to the local employees, some of whom have worked for the U.S. government for decades, with no certainty around if or when the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv could safely reopen. 

“I can assure you that senior leaders in Washington remain committed to supporting Ukraine and its people in defending your sovereignty and independence. How we can best do that may change over time as the conflict itself changes,” she wrote. “That makes it very difficult to predict where and how our work together—work we all did from our embassy and other facilities in Kyiv—will continue.”

She added that the State Department intends to continue paying salaries for “as long as possible.”

She also referred them to a European Union program, called the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), allowing Ukrainians to apply for temporary residence and work permits elsewhere in Europe, indicating that the EU could provide more immediate benefits for the Ukrainian embassy staff than the U.S. government could, despite many of them having worked for the U.S. government for decades. 

“Ukrainians are eligible for work permits throughout the EU, which provides a back-up plan for continued support if the unfortunate situation arises where you are no longer employed by the U.S. government,” Donfried wrote. “We cannot predict what will happen or when, but this EU TPD registration provides immediate benefits as well as long-term benefits if you cannot return home as quickly as all of us wish.”

Several U.S. diplomats familiar with the matter said that some of the 600 Ukrainians who worked at the U.S. Embassy have opted to stay in the country, to either aid the territorial defense forces in the fight against Russian troops or relocate to the relative safety of western Ukraine. Others, however, including the families of some employees, remain trapped in Kyiv or other cities, enduring shelling and bombardments from Russian forces.

The U.S. diplomats said they feared Ukrainians who worked for the U.S. Embassy could face retaliation from Russian forces if the invasion is successful. They also drew parallels to Afghanistan, where they say hundreds of Afghans who worked for the U.S. Embassy or State Department there were effectively abandoned as the United States withdrew its forces and evacuated tens of thousands more Afghans. These diplomats questioned why the U.S. government did not have a plan in place to help protect or provide assistance to their longtime Ukrainian colleagues given the months of advance warning that Washington gave about a potential Russian invasion.

The war in Ukraine has entered its fourth week as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes for a swift victory to topple the pro-Western Ukrainian government foundered amid military blunders and unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance. Russia’s invasion has already killed more than 900 civilians and injured nearly 1,500 more, the United Nations estimates, although it added that the actual toll was likely “considerably higher.” (Officials in Mariupol, in Ukraine’s southeast, have already cited more than 2,000 dead civilians in that city alone.) As the conflict continues, the U.N. refugee agency estimates that as many as 4 million people will be forced to flee the country.  

Across the country, Russian air and artillery strikes have destroyed dozens of hospitals and schools, while the Ukrainian foreign ministry accused Russian forces of forcibly removing more than 2,000 children from the eastern Ukrainian breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk on Tuesday. In besieged Ukrainian cities like Mariupol, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped with shrinking supplies of food, no heat, and no water. Facing starvation, some residents have reportedly resorted to drinking water from radiators or melted snow; others have been forced to eat stray dogs out of desperation. 

On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden warned that the Kremlin could resort to using chemical weapons against Ukraine, in an escalatory move that could further intensify the conflict. 

Putin’s “back is against the wall,” Biden said. “He’s already used chemical weapons in the past, and we should be careful of what’s about to come.”

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

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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