“She saw the war”: what awaits Biden as ambassador to Ukraine

It helps that President Joe Biden’s candidacy — career US Foreign Service officer Bridget Brink — enjoys the unwavering support of her predecessors.

“Bridget has a lot of managerial experience, a lot of leadership experience,” Marie Yovanovitch, Washington’s last ambassador to Ukraine, told POLITICO. “She knows how to put together teams and, you know, succeed. And I think that’s what she’s going to do. She is very strong.”

“She would be perfect for this job,” former US Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor said in a telephone interview. The high-stakes situation she finds herself in Ukraine will only encourage her to step up her game, he said. “In a war zone, it only heightens the intensity, heightens the importance, heightens the attention,” he said.

Biden’s announcement that he intends to appoint Brink as head of the U.S. legation in Ukraine follows a secret Sunday visit by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Kyiv, where they met with President Volodymyr Zelensky in a secure, windowless room in its fortified area. office. Blinken told reporters after safely returning to Poland that he promised Zelensky that American diplomats would return to Ukraine this week and a new ambassador would arrive shortly.

“Then they will start the process of looking at how we actually open the actual embassy in Kyiv. I think it will happen within a couple of weeks, as I expected,” Blinken said, suggesting that US diplomats can only reach western Ukraine for now. “We’re doing it on purpose, we’re doing it carefully, we’re doing it with the safety of our staff in mind first, but we’re doing it.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Brink would be the first U.S. ambassador to Kyiv since Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled by former President Donald Trump in 2019, in a move that was heavily criticized during his first impeachment trial. Brink is currently the U.S. Ambassador to Slovakia, a post she was unanimously approved for in 2019.

Interviews with Democratic and Republican senators on Monday suggest a quick confirmation this time too. Republicans, in particular, have said they are keen to see a Senate-confirmed ambassador as they call on Biden to re-establish a US diplomatic presence in Kyiv and call Brink a qualified and consensual candidate for the position.

“This is a moment where we need to act decisively and quickly with strong bipartisan support,” Senator Steve Danes (R-Mont.), who was in Ukraine earlier this month and recently met with Brink in Slovakia, said in an interview Monday. . “She has the votes to get confirmed for now.”

“We need to get leadership there,” Senator Tom Tillis (RN.C.), who was in the region last week, told POLITICO. “These confirmed positions are very, very important. It is impossible to overestimate the value when you are abroad.”

Steven Pifer, who served as the US ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, supported a widely held vote of confidence. “She is bright. She is well informed. She is also someone you can identify as someone on the fast track,” he said, recalling her rapid rise through the ranks at the State Department.

“The Return of the American Flag” [in Kyiv] will be a great political message to Ukrainians,” he said. Echoing Jovanovic, he called Brink “a good manager”.

“It will be important,” he added, “because it won’t be easy to get everything up and running again.”

It is not yet clear when the US will send diplomats back to Kyiv. But wherever Brink is based in Ukraine, whether in the capital or western Lviv, she will take office “in a very different situation” than any of her predecessors, Yovanovitch said.

Yovanovitch served as ambassador to Ukraine during the war, but during her tenure, the Russian military operation was less intense, limited in scope, and limited to the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. After all-out fighting from the spring of 2014 to the winter of 2015, the war turned into a war of attrition, with troops mostly firing small projectiles at each other from a World War I-style labyrinth of bunkers and trenches.

Brink will be Washington’s top diplomat in Ukraine while the country is under heavy attack by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces. The Kremlin may have withdrawn troops from Kyiv, but it continues to bombard cities across Ukraine with powerful rockets and bombs, while its ground forces are concentrated in a large swath of territory to the east and south. Highlighting the danger, on Sunday and Monday night, Russian missiles hit five rail lines — critical links for humanitarian aid and military supplies — including one in Lvov just hours before Biden announced Brink’s candidacy.

A Russian-speaker whose career has mostly been linked to Europe and Eurasia, Brink is well known in Ukrainian circles. For three years she served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, where she worked closely with Yovanovitch while she was in Kyiv.

“We became partners with her, and she was my main contact person in Washington when I first came to Ukraine,” Yovanovitch said. “She was my day-to-day partner, calling back and forth and emailing.” In March 2017, Brink saw firsthand the devastation by pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, meeting with victims in the cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

“She was in the Donbass,” Yovanovitch said. “She saw the war.”

Brink’s biggest challenge will be to support the Biden administration’s efforts to help Ukraine defeat Russia. The unprovoked war killed thousands of civilians, displaced about 5 million more, and razed entire cities to the ground in just 61 days. Taylor said that few are as ready as Brink to take on such a challenging role at a critical moment. “She has a lot of experience,” he said. “She knows the region, she knows the problems.”

The day after Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Brink visited the border with Slovakia, where she said in a statement she witnessed “a heartbreaking scene of Ukrainian women and children fleeing” from the Russian attack.

One thing that Brink is unlikely to have to deal with, at least in the short term, is the role of arbiter between the Zelenskiy administration and the ruling party, as well as rival political factions and recalcitrant former presidents who often squabble. Russia’s war has quelled long-standing differences between rivals to an unprecedented degree and smoothed out the messy and complex world of Ukrainian politics as the country comes together to defeat a common enemy.

“As long as the war is going on – as long as the Ukrainians are winning – I bet that this unity will prevail. The heads of the so-called opposition are now supporting the president,” Taylor said. But sometime in the future, Brink will still have to enter the dirty and dark world of Ukrainian politics.

“Ukraine is a real democracy. When they win and when they get back to reconstruction, back to reform efforts, back to the EU bid and all these political issues, politics will come back. Because there is real democracy, there is real debate,” Taylor said.

A foreign official who worked with Brink and spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic issues described her as “motivated and diligent” and “what-we-are-doing-today-to-save-the-world.” kind of person.”

“She knows how the Washington machine works, and since she is so close to [Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria] Nuland, she’s very well connected. She knows the people in the White House well and gets things done,” the official said.

If Brink has a flaw, the official said, it’s that “she has the idea that there are good guys and bad guys. There is no black and white in Ukraine. That may be her weakness.”

How soon Brink can take over as the new ambassador depends largely on how quickly the Senate can confirm her. On Capitol Hill, senators on both sides of the aisle expressed support for her swift delivery to Ukraine.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate would “priority” Brink’s nomination and “relocate her as quickly as possible.” But fast confirmation of a candidate requires the consent of all 100 senators; otherwise, it could take up to a week to remove procedural obstacles.

“I do not want to see [senators] using this nomination as leverage in some way,” Danes said. “Ambassador Brink has made it clear: she wants the diplomatic mission to be re-established in Ukraine.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (DN.J.) said he would try to hold hearings on her nomination as soon as Biden formally introduces her to the Senate, and Democrats predicted a quick confirmation.

“If anything has the word ‘Ukraine’ in its name these days, you have a chance to get fast-tracked approval in the United States Senate,” joked Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut). “This is a career civil servant who has no political dangers. … I would be surprised if we couldn’t get 100 people to do the right thing here.”

One wild card could be Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), who sought to subpoena Brink in 2020 as part of his investigation into President Hunter’s son and potential conflicts of interest. Brink eventually sat down for a voluntary interview with Johnson’s investigators.

Johnson told POLITICO on Monday that he hasn’t decided yet: “I have to take a look at what she did in our investigation. It’s been a couple of years.”

When asked what she would say to Brink about the role she was preparing to play, Yovanovitch replied that she “didn’t dare to give her advice.”

I think she knows exactly what to do.