U.S. Diplomats Tiptoe Back Into Ukraine—Weeks After Their European Counterparts

Lawmakers push the U.S. State Department to overcome its “bunker mentality,” but in Ukraine, that’s complicated.

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

Putin’s War

U.S. diplomats are slowly returning to Ukraine more than two months after Russia invaded the country and weeks after many European nations reopened their embassies and dispatched their ambassadors back to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

Unlike their European counterparts, however, U.S. diplomats are still based in Poland and making day trips into Ukraine before returning across the border. The top U.S. diplomat for Ukraine, Kristina Kvien, and others made a brief visit to Kyiv on Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of victory in World War II, marking the latest incremental step toward Washington’s planned move to fully reopen the U.S. Embassy there. The trip by U.S. diplomats follows a series of high-profile visits by senior U.S. dignitaries to demonstrate U.S. support for Ukraine in the war against Moscow and confidence in the Ukrainian government’s ability to beat back their Russian invaders.

The slow and incremental transition back to reopening the embassy, however, also sheds light on a broader debate in Washington over how to wrest the U.S. State Department out of its “bunker mentality,” where diplomats have long raised concerns that security restrictions obstruct the ability to do their jobs in unstable countries or conflict zones. Over the course of decades, U.S. embassies in unstable countries have slowly transformed into secured compounds, surrounded by heavily guarded checkpoints that critics say build up literal and metaphorical walls between U.S. diplomats and the host governments and populations they are meant to engage with.

U.S. diplomats are slowly returning to Ukraine more than two months after Russia invaded the country and weeks after many European nations reopened their embassies and dispatched their ambassadors back to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.

Unlike their European counterparts, however, U.S. diplomats are still based in Poland and making day trips into Ukraine before returning across the border. The top U.S. diplomat for Ukraine, Kristina Kvien, and others made a brief visit to Kyiv on Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of victory in World War II, marking the latest incremental step toward Washington’s planned move to fully reopen the U.S. Embassy there. The trip by U.S. diplomats follows a series of high-profile visits by senior U.S. dignitaries to demonstrate U.S. support for Ukraine in the war against Moscow and confidence in the Ukrainian government’s ability to beat back their Russian invaders.

The slow and incremental transition back to reopening the embassy, however, also sheds light on a broader debate in Washington over how to wrest the U.S. State Department out of its “bunker mentality,” where diplomats have long raised concerns that security restrictions obstruct the ability to do their jobs in unstable countries or conflict zones. Over the course of decades, U.S. embassies in unstable countries have slowly transformed into secured compounds, surrounded by heavily guarded checkpoints that critics say build up literal and metaphorical walls between U.S. diplomats and the host governments and populations they are meant to engage with.

In places such as Iraq, Pakistan, and (until recently) Afghanistan, U.S. government personnel were often restricted in when and how they could leave the embassy compound due to security threats, protecting diplomats while at the same time hamstringing their ability to effectively do their jobs. The trend accelerated after the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which led to the deaths of four U.S. government personnel, including ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and sparked a political firestorm in Washington.

Since then, top U.S. diplomats as well as lawmakers have argued the State Department needs to ease some security restrictions that are seen as overly cautious and onerous regarding how U.S. diplomats can operate in potentially dangerous environments.

Although this debate has centered on U.S. diplomatic outposts in the Middle East and Africa for decades, the war in Ukraine has shifted it to Europe. In the early weeks of the conflict, when Washington was unsure whether Ukraine could hold out against the massive Russian onslaught, U.S. diplomats operated out of temporary facilities in eastern Poland, near its border with Ukraine. Notably, the State Department left behind hundreds of local Ukrainian staff who worked at the U.S. Embassy there, drawing the ire of both the local staff and U.S. diplomats who worked alongside them.

After Ukrainian forces beat back a Russian offensive that rendered Kyiv relatively safe, many Western countries began reopening their embassies and sending their ambassadors back into the Ukrainian capital. France, Italy, Turkey, the European Union, Portugal, Austria, Lithuania, and Slovakia quickly sent their diplomats back to Kyiv last month, but the United States was conspicuously absent. (A few plucky ambassadors from Eastern European countries never left Kyiv.)

Some senior U.S. diplomats quietly pressured the White House to quickly follow suit, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter but unauthorized to speak on the record. The senior diplomats argued it was critical that the United States sends its diplomats to Kyiv to coordinate more readily with the Ukrainian government, gain a better understanding of the conflict from the ground, and send a symbol to both Kyiv and Moscow of the United States support for Ukraine in the war. But security concerns won the day, at least temporarily.

The State Department said it plans to open the U.S. Embassy as soon as possible once it is deemed safe and consistent with the department’s security priorities.

“The purpose of Charge d’Affaires Kvien’s travel is to conduct diplomatic engagement in Kyiv in advance of the planned resumption of Embassy Kyiv operations,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We look forward to announcing the resumption of Embassy Kyiv operations once all necessary steps have been taken, and as security conditions permit.”

U.S. lawmakers jumped into the fray of the debate, publicly pushing the administration to get diplomatic boots back on the ground in Kyiv. “It is imperative for the State Department to reopen our embassy in Kyiv to better support Ukraine and send a strong message that the U.S. government stands with the Ukrainian people,” Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told a top State Department official, Brian McKeon, at a congressional hearing on May 3.

A 2021 study from the American Academy of Diplomacy on the “risk paradigm” for U.S. diplomats assessed that the “State Department’s current risk aversion at higher-threat posts obstructs the performance of the most basic functions of a diplomat abroad.”

“U.S. diplomatic and [U.S. Agency for International Development] officers are rarely allowed to travel to meet sources, colleagues, or counterparts in less than fully secured areas or make unscheduled moves,” the report added. “Requests by Foreign Service Officers to discreetly meet with subjects and sources or to review remote programs are too often denied, and the ability to observe and report on a country they are expected to know with a high level of expertise is severely limited.”

The matter, however, is far from simple for the State Department when it comes to Ukraine, an active war zone, where Russia’s offensives have been characterized by indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. Any Russian strike that would harm U.S. diplomats, whether intentional or not, could drastically escalate tensions between Moscow and Washington, the world’s two leading nuclear powers. An additional complicating factor is the sheer size of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, which dwarfed most other embassies in Kyiv. In its prewar operations, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv had a staff of roughly 800 people, two U.S. officials said, including around 600 local Ukrainian employees. Reopening an embassy of that size while Kyiv is still under threat of long-range strikes by Russian forces is significantly more logistically complicated than a smaller European country reopening its embassy that may only have around a dozen staff members.

The redeployment of U.S. diplomats to Ukraine mirrors another debate in Washington over when—or whether—U.S. President Joe Biden should visit Ukraine. A series of senior U.S. dignitaries have taken turns visiting Kyiv in recent weeks, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken; U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi; and, most recently, First Lady Jill Biden. But as more heads of government visit Ukraine, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in April and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday, Biden is facing more pressure to follow suit.

During his visit to Kyiv on April 24, Blinken vowed to reopen the embassy soon but did not give a specific timetable—to the frustration of some lawmakers.

Even before the war in Ukraine laid bare the problems of the State Department’s risk aversion, a bipartisan group of lawmakers began introducing legislation in what they characterized as an effort to correct course. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced a bill in 2021 to tackle the State Department’s “bunker mentality” by easing the department’s security reporting requirements to Congress and transforming how the State Department conducts investigations after security breaches, which some diplomats view as an exercise in finding scapegoats.

Murphy’s bill was later partly incorporated into a bill that Risch introduced, the Diplomatic Support and Security Act. That bill passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March and is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

“In attempting to achieve complete security and eliminate risk, the department routinely stifles the ability of our diplomats to get outside of embassy walls and meet face-to-face with local leaders and communities,” Risch said at the time of the bill’s passage. “Our adversaries do not place such burdens on their diplomats.”

Update, May 9, 2022: This article was updated to include a comment from a U.S. State Department spokesperson.

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

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