Diplomatic Life Returns to Kyiv—Slowly

Some, but not all, of the embassies that fled Ukraine’s capital are coming back.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
French ambassador to Ukraine Etienne de Poncins is seen in his office.
French ambassador to Ukraine Etienne de Poncins is seen in his office.
French ambassador to Ukraine Etienne de Poncins is seen in his office after the reopening of the French Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 17. Daphne Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign diplomats are slowly returning to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and reopening their embassies, a vote of confidence that the worst of Russia’s assault against the Ukrainian city may be over—for now at least.

At least 17 countries have sent their diplomats back to Kyiv, mostly European Union and NATO members that are supporting Ukraine in fighting off the Russian invasion. The return of foreign diplomats makes clear that there is a return to some semblance of safety in the Ukrainian capital after nearly two months of Russian bombardment that saw Moscow’s forces come within 15 miles of the city’s center. Their return also presents a symbolic victory for Kyiv and a show of solidarity from its allies in Europe, which have supplied the Ukrainian government with economic support and military assistance to help repel the Russian invasion, which entered a new phase on Tuesday with its long-awaited assault on the eastern provinces.

“For Ukrainians, it’s symbolically important, definitely, that foreign countries are with them and supporting Ukraine with military aid and humanitarian aid but also with trying to continue embassy work as normally as possible,” said one senior Eastern European diplomat.

Foreign diplomats are slowly returning to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and reopening their embassies, a vote of confidence that the worst of Russia’s assault against the Ukrainian city may be over—for now at least.

At least 17 countries have sent their diplomats back to Kyiv, mostly European Union and NATO members that are supporting Ukraine in fighting off the Russian invasion. The return of foreign diplomats makes clear that there is a return to some semblance of safety in the Ukrainian capital after nearly two months of Russian bombardment that saw Moscow’s forces come within 15 miles of the city’s center. Their return also presents a symbolic victory for Kyiv and a show of solidarity from its allies in Europe, which have supplied the Ukrainian government with economic support and military assistance to help repel the Russian invasion, which entered a new phase on Tuesday with its long-awaited assault on the eastern provinces.

“For Ukrainians, it’s symbolically important, definitely, that foreign countries are with them and supporting Ukraine with military aid and humanitarian aid but also with trying to continue embassy work as normally as possible,” said one senior Eastern European diplomat.

Among the countries sending their diplomats back to Kyiv to reopen their embassies are: France, Italy, Turkey, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Belgium, and Austria. The European Union also reopened its diplomatic mission in Kyiv this month. Several major countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, have kept their diplomatic missions out of the capital for now.

In another sign that the security situation in the Ukrainian capital has stabilized, Kyiv has received a flurry of visits from high-level European officials in recent weeks, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen; the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia; and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who took a walk around central Kyiv, still eerily empty, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Although some countries are reopening their embassies in Kyiv, others are holding off to assess the security situation. Zelensky has warned that while Russia is shifting the thrust of its attack to eastern Ukraine, Moscow could look to launch a renewed assault on the capital in the future.

A German official said its diplomats had yet to return to Kyiv and Berlin was carefully assessing the security situation in Ukraine. A spokesperson for the U.K. government said they were looking to reopen the British Embassy “as soon as feasibly possible.” The spokesperson noted that security concerns dictate the pace of any diplomatic reopening. “The safety of our staff is always paramount,” the spokesperson said. A senior Israeli official said reopening the country’s embassy was not currently under consideration, but they were continuing to assess the situation.

U.S. diplomats are continuing to operate out of Rzeszow, Poland, near the Ukrainian border but are “not currently traveling over the border to Ukraine due to the unstable security situation,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said.

“We don’t have specifics on the timing of when our team will return, but our team is actively planning, and we very much look forward to resuming embassy operations in Ukraine to facilitate our support to the government and people of Ukraine as they bravely defend their country,” the U.S. spokesperson added. Still, some U.S. lawmakers are urging U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to reopen the embassy in Kyiv as a sign of support for Ukraine.

The United States was one of the first countries to begin drawing down its diplomatic footprint in Kyiv in January in anticipation of the coming Russian assault. At the time, the move drew the ire of Ukrainian officials who accused Washington of stoking panic and undermining the country’s economy.

Most foreign embassies evacuated their ambassadors and staff immediately prior to Russia launching its invasion or in the immediate aftermath of the war’s outbreak. A handful of countries—including Poland, Georgia, and Estonia—kept their diplomatic missions in Kyiv operational, even as Russian troops closed in on the Ukrainian capital, though they drew down the number of staff at their embassies. Estonia has yet to send its ambassador back to Kyiv but plans to do so in the coming weeks. Most embassies will still have a reduced presence in Kyiv and may not immediately restart routine diplomatic work, such as consular services.

Throughout all the diplomatic turmoil and exodus, there was one constant: The Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, the Vatican’s diplomatic mission to Ukraine, has remained in Kyiv for the duration of the war so far, along with its essential staff.

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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